How newspapers twist a simple report

How newspapers twist a simple report
Norman Solomon | Creators Syndicate

WE often have an image of the journalist as a consummate professional who provides the requisite summary of events with almost scientific precision. While it is true that the news coverage we get is often quite predictable in terms of how it is presented, this has much more to do with professional imitation than objective standards.

For instance, let us consider a New York Times news article that appeared on the paper’s website after the Iranian government tested missiles on July 9.

— “Iranian Revolutionary Guards practicing war-game maneuvers test-fired nine missiles on Wednesday, including at least one the government in Tehran describes as having the range to reach Israel,” The New York Times reported.

It would have been equally valid to lead off the news report this way: “Iranian forces practiced what they said were defensive maneuvers when they test-fired nine missiles on Wednesday — including at least one the government in Tehran describes as having the range to reach Israel, which is reportedly making preparations to launch an attack on Iran.”

— “The tests, shown on Iranian television, coincide with increasingly tense exchanges with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is for civilian purposes but which many Western governments suspect is aimed at building nuclear weapons,” the newspaper reported.

The news account could have noted in the same paragraph: “Israel is known to have a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. Unlike the government of Iran, the Israeli government has not been willing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

— The New York Times article quoted a statement from Deputy White House Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe, who said: “The Iranian regime only furthers the isolation of the Iranian people from the international community when it engages in this sort of activity.” Readers also learned that Johndroe urged Iran to “refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world” and added: “The Iranians should stop the development of ballistic missiles which could be used as a delivery vehicle for a potential nuclear weapon immediately.”

The article did nothing to clarify the odd use of the word “immediately,” which could easily convey the false implication that Iran possesses nuclear weapons. But more fundamentally, the article — which ran well over 1,000 words — did not include much perspective that differed from the outlook of the White House.

More than a dozen paragraphs into the story, a brief quote did appear from Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and head of the National Intelligence Council, saying: “I think Iran has a hedgehog strategy: Mess with me and you’ll get stuck.” But that line of thought was dropped as abruptly as it appeared.

Not so on The Huffington Post’s website, which featured an article by the longtime diplomatic and strategic analyst Joe Cirincione. “Each side in the Gulf sees its moves as purely defensive,” he wrote. “It is the other guy who is the belligerent. The latest Iranian tests continue a dangerous action-reaction cycle that could lead to war.”

While The New York Times story was short on cause-and-effect, Cirincione went deeper. “It is no coincidence that Iran fired its salvo of nine ballistic missiles on July 9 while the G-8 leaders in Japan were calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program,” he wrote. “Its pyrotechnic display was a political statement, not a demonstration of any new military capability. All the missiles had been tested before; all but the Shahab-3 fly only 70 to 180 miles and are a threat to those on Iran’s borders, but no one else. Iran claims the Shahab can now fly 1,250 miles, but scientists I talked to (sometimes you really do need to be a rocket scientist) are very skeptical.”

Within hours of the reported missile tests, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was live on TV news for an extended press conference. Naturally, he gave the official view from the US government. But, overall, journalism is supposed to provide a lot more.

— Norman Solomon’s books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” A documentary film of the same name, based on the book has been released on home video

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