Originally published by Extra!, the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
By Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher
The New York Times' treatment of Iranian and Israeli nuclear programs in recent months is a clear example of the systematic double standard the "paper of record" displays in international coverage (Extra!, 8/09).
The Times has devoted tremendous space and resources to covering Iran's nuclear program. Even though, as the Times itself explained (9/26/09), there is "no evidence" that Iran is building a bomb, and despite Iran's cooperation with international inspectors, the paper has continued to wave the specter of the "Iranian threat"--calling to mind the paper's warmongering coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Extra!, 12/09). Meanwhile, Israel's longstanding refusal to cooperate in any way with international institutions seeking to monitor its actually existing nuclear weapons is absent from the pages of the New York Times. The contrast once again demonstrates how the Times systematically applies different standards to official allies and enemies of the U.S.--a long-standing and well-documented pattern at the paper (Extra!, 2/09; NACLA, 12/19/08).
On August 28, a long-awaited International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear activities was released. While the report was critical of Iran at times, saying "it does not consider that Iran has adequately addressed the substance of the issues," it also noted that Iran and the IAEA "agreed on improvements regarding the provision of accounting and operating records" and on the "requirements for timely access for unannounced inspections." Importantly, the report also concluded that "Iran has cooperated with the Agency in improving safeguards measures."
But the Times' (8/29/09) hysterical coverage virtually ignored Iran's acceptance of additional safeguards. Instead, journalists William Broad and David Sanger wrote that the report described how Iran "continues to expand its nuclear program and deny the IAEA most forms of cooperation." Days later, Sanger warned in a front-page article (9/10/09) that Iran has "created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon."
One would think from the Times' coverage of Iran that its editors view nuclear proliferation and the IAEA as newsworthy subjects--and that the nuclear programs of other powerful nations in the Middle East would likewise be subject to intense scrutiny. For instance Israel, one of four rogue states that have refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and which is known to have secretly developed a large stockpile nuclear weapons (Arms Control Association, 2009). Iran is immeasurably more cooperative with the IAEA than Israel and has no nuclear weapons. Unlike Iran, Israel has never permitted international inspections of its nuclear sites, and has consistently refused efforts to place its activities under international supervision. Israel is also the most aggressive state in the region, having conducted military attacks on other countries at least four times since 2006. Iran, by comparison, has never attacked another country in modern history. Yet when it comes to U.S. allies such as Israel, the paper's coverage takes on a decidedly different character.
This was exhibited on September 18, when the IAEA Board of Governors voted for the first time to request that Israel's nuclear program be placed under international oversight (IAEA,9/18/09). Israeli leaders immediately rejected the call, saying Israel would "not cooperate in any matter with this resolution" (Foreign Policy, 9/18/09). Without a hint of irony, Western diplomats insisted that it was "unfair and counterproductive to isolate one member state" (Reuters, 9/18/09). But the vote, deemed a "major shift" by Foreign Policy magazine (9/18/09), went entirely unreported by the Times, as did the response by Israeli and Western diplomats.
A week after the IAEA vote on Israel, as world leaders congregated in Pittsburgh for the G-20 conference, Barack Obama and other Western leaders "revealed" a "secret" Iranian nuclear facility located on property owned by the Revolutionary Guard in Qom.(New York Times, 9/26/09; Extra!, 12/09). The Times promptly erupted with mountains of coverage--five articles on September 26 alone. In total, according to a Nexis search of the week following the "revelation," the Times published a total of 32 pieces on what it said "may well be the first peek at...a planned, or even partly completed, hidden nuclear archipelago stretching across the country" (9/29/09), including 25 news or news analysis articles (eight of which appeared on the front page), as well as two scathing editorials, three op-eds, one series of statements from world leaders and more than a thousand words of letters to the editor--all this directly on the heels of devoting exactly zero articles to the IAEA resolution on Israel.
Times coverage of the Iranian issue has relied almost entirely on sources with clear U.S. or Western biases, many of them anonymous. Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review (9/30/09) found one article (9/26/09) crafted exclusively from no less than 20 anonymous White House sources. "There was not a single alternative perspective offered from Europe, the IAEA or Mideast specialists," Massing wrote. In another instance, the paper (9/26/09) printed in full separate statements condemning the facility from Obama, French President Sarkozy and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted, he was described as being "all bluster" as he "mocked" and "made light of the Western accusations" and their "dramatic revelation" (9/26/09) of the Qom facility.
As a result, Iranian acquiescence to inspections of the Qom facility, as well as ElBaradei's finding that there was "nothing to be worried about" at the plant, were barely mentioned by the Times (Reuters 11/05/09). Equally important to the story, yet also downplayed, was Iran's voluntary disclosure of the facility--prior to its "revelation" by Obama and other Western leaders. (Iran notified the IAEA more than six months prior to the commencement of enrichment operations at the Qom facility, as required by its original agreement with the IAEA, though the agency recently criticized Iran for not recognizing a supplementary agreement that would have required notification as soon as construction commenced--Jerusalem Post, 11/28/09; FAS, 8/28/09; Reuters, 11/17/09.)
Instead, the Times focused solely on the story of Western determination to confront the implacable Iranian menace and to counter its "clandestine efforts to design a nuclear warhead" (9/29/09). The possibility of an aggressive strike against Iran loomed in the coverage, with the Times reminding readers that a military attack was "on the table" (9/26/09) and suggesting that "Israel might carry out a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons" (9/29/09). Obama was quoted warning Iran not to "continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation" (9/26/09).The opinion pages also contributed to this confrontational tone. One op-ed, written by Times U.N. bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar (9/30/09), warned that "the plant could fuel a five-bomb arsenal in less than a year" and called for "protection against what we now know is Iran's determination to build the bomb." Times editorial writers (9/26/09) pushed for sanctions and called "faithless" Iran a "big cheat" that "has a long history of lying and cheating about its nuclear program."
Notably, the Times didn't publish any editorials or op-eds urging the United States or Iran to launch a preventive attack against Israel, or to apply crippling sanctions on that state. There was no suggestion that the U.S. curtail its ongoing efforts to bolster Israeli defiance with U.N. vetoes and massive military and economic aid--totaling more than $7 million per day, according to the Congressional Research Service (5/20/09). As for condemning Israel's long history of lying and cheating about its nuclear program, well, we're still waiting.
Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He has written for such outlets as the Nation and the Boston Globe. Stephen Maher (RationalManifesto.blogspot.com) is an MA candidate at the School of International Service at American University.