"Iran's Threat to the United States" --- CNN makes its bid for Worst Iran Story of the Week
Back in June 2009, amidst the excitement over the impending Presidential election, we had a bit of fun with the Western coverage, handing out medals for particularly jaw-dropping pieces. We noted the attempt to make Zahra Rahnavard --- academic, artist, activist, and wife of Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi --- "Iran's Michelle Obama". There was the conversion of campaign rallies into "the jostling crowds of a rock gig moshpit, and the carefully choreographed build-up of a World Wrestling Federation grudge match", with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just "like the punk rock group the Sex Pistols".
All good fun even if, with hindsight, we have to acknowledge that our Silver Medal winner Elliott Abrams --- not one of our favourite members of the George W. Bush Administration --- may have gotten it right, "Iranians, unfortunately, are being given no...chance to decide who they really want to govern them."
Today we revive our awards. Unfortunately, we are prompted to do so not out of excitement but out of concern. The drumbeat of Western media for heightened conflict, possibly war, has gotten louder this week. Indeed, supposedly "quality" outlets are now at the point where they are ignoring developments that point to an easing of tension, instead preferring the Page 1 of an imminent military attack.
This week's winners:
HONOURABLE MENTION: CNN "IRAN WILL ATTACK NEW YORK"
Feeding off the hyperbolic --- and unsupported --- sound-bite of the US Director of National Intelligence that the Supreme Leader was involved in plans to carry out attacks within America, CNN fans the fear.
Erin Burnett's introduction is a nice guilt-setter: "No one buys Iran's claim that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes." Then she invokes a New York Police Department official and turns loose Representative Peter King, whose recent claim to fame is his chairing of March 2011 hearing on "Muslim radicalisation in America".
There is not a shred of evidence in the 7 1/2 --- unless you count the 2004 claim of Iranians video-taping bridges and the Statue of Liberty --- for "an attack on our biggest city". Burnett even introduces her segment with King, "You have been told there is no specific plot at this time."
No matter. King, laden with the buzzwords of "threat", "Iran", "Hezbollah as proxy", places the US on highest alert. After all, who is going to challenge him?
This, however, is not the reason for our award. Instead, Burnett takes away the Honourable Mention for her garbled explanation, in response to criticism from Glenn Greenwald, of her journalism:
I've been to Iran & pro-Americanism ruled. I've said this many times. Now we're told Iran is domestic threat, we report that too...We do many angles over time.I'm proud of my and my team's work. And I'm glad I went to Iran, not many have. Thanks for watching.
BRONZE MEDAL: SKY NEWS AND DAILY TELEGRAPH "IRAN WILL SET LOOSE AL QA'EDA"
British TV channel Sky News makes an immediate bid for its medal, "Fears Iran Is Helping Al Qaeda Plot Atrocity".
The story is a mix of unnamed "intelligence sources" --- "Iran has been supplying al Qaeda with training in the use of advanced explosives, 'some funding and a safe haven' as part of a deal first worked out in 2009 which has now led to 'operational capacity' --- and half-truths.
For example, the US has offered a $10 million reward for Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, "a senior al-Qaida facilitator and financier based in Iran". But Sky's follow-up, "Iran has reacted to the publication of al Suri's name by taking him into 'protective custody'," is a mangling of the history since 2001 --- there have been a number of Al Qa'eda members who fled to Iran after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, but Tehran has kept them under effective house arrest.
Sky then leaps further, "Al Suri has been swiftly replaced --- a sign, Sky intelligence sources say, that the al Qaeda relationship with Iran is of great mutual importance":
A secret intelligence memo, seen by Sky News, said: "Against the background of intensive co-operation over recent months between Iran and al Qaeda - with a view to conducting a joint attack against Western targets overseas… Iran has significantly stepped up its investment, maintenance and improvement of operational and intelligence ties with the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan in recent months.
All very dramatic, if you take the supposed evidence on faith --- remember the 2010 documentary, pushed by Fox News, that said, "Osama bin Laden is Living Comfortably in Iran"? --- and Britain's Daily Telegraph is happy to do so:
Tehran has loosened restrictions on high level al–Qaeda operatives under its controls as well as offering financing and training to the terrorist group's senior planners.
Security experts said that recent intelligence suggested Iran and al–Qaeda could attempt to find a common project in Europe, possibly targeting the London Olympics, which opens in July.
SILVER MEDAL: DAILY TELEGRAPH "IRAN ASSASSINATING ISRAELI DIPLOMATS"
Not content with sharing the Bronze Medal, the Daily Telegraph --- the supposed "quality" newspaper which has been making a long-term bid for Top Far-from-Quality Coverage of Iran --- goes for more glory.
The initial piece is unexceptional, or rather the exceptional comes from British Foreign Secretary William Hague as he is interviewed by the Telegraph:
It is a crisis coming down the tracks. Because they are clearly continuing their nuclear weapons programme....If they obtain nuclear weapons capability, then I think other nations across the Middle East will want to develop nuclear weapons.
And so, the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented would have begun with all the destabilising effects in the Middle East. And the threat of a new cold war in the Middle East without necessarily all the safety mechanisms....That would be a disaster in world affairs.
Nothing distinctive here, as Hague continues the British pressure on Tehran to come on its knees to the negotiating table, even under the headline, "Iran Risks Nuclear Cold War".
No, the Silver Medal is claimed by Telegraph reporters Robert Winnett and Benedict Brogan for this single line, ""Several Israeli diplomats have also assassinated by Iranian hitmen around the world over the past few days."
Well, no. Iranian citizens have been detained or are suspected of carrying out attacks in India, Georgia, and Thailand this weeks. Israeli diplomats were injured in the Indian and Georgian incidents, but none of them were "assassinated".
(The Telegraph has now changed the line to "Several Israeli diplomats have also been targeted by Iranian hit men around the world over the past few days," but only after Blake Hounshell and EA's Josh Shahryar were among those who used Twitter to highlight the original sentence.)
GOLD MEDAL: THE GUARDIAN "ISRAEL AND IRAN: IT'S WAR!"
In the end, however, CNN, Sky, and The Daily Telegraph have to give way to the quality-setting British newspaper The Guardian.
On Saturday, The Guardian went Page 1 with a story headlined, "US Officials Believe Iran Sanctions Will Fail, Making Military Action Likely". Chris McGreal opened:
Officials in key parts of the Obama administration are increasingly convinced that sanctions will not deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear programme, and believe that the US will be left with no option but to launch an attack on Iran or watch Israel do so.
So who are these "key" officials letting us into the secret of forthcoming war? Well, actually, it is a single official:
"The White House wants to see sanctions work. This is not the Bush White House. It does not need another conflict," said an official knowledgeable on Middle East policy. "Its problem is that the guys in Tehran are behaving like sanctions don't matter, like their economy isn't collapsing, like Israel isn't going to do anything.
"Sanctions are all we've got to throw at the problem. If they fail, then it's hard to see how we don't move to the 'in extremis' option."
Maybe this "knowledgeable" official is in a key place in the Obama Administration. Maybe not. Maybe he is putting out an agreed line from the Pentagon and the State Department. Or maybe he is unhappy with the trend of US policy and possible talks with Tehran (keep reading) and is trying to unsettle it. Maybe he genuinely thinks that military action is on the cards. Or maybe he is using McGreal to put more pressure on the Iranians to come to the table on their knees.
(McGreal's other "official" in the story makes a vague statement that says nothing about the balance between sanctions and an attack, ""We don't see a way forward. The record shows that there is nothing to work with.")
All of these possibilities, however, would unsettle The Guardian's Page 1 narrative.
But why a Gold Medal for this? After all other media, such as The New York Times, have played this tune for months.
The Guardian, one of the "quality" markers for British journalism, earns the highest honour not just for going Page 1 with the hyperbole. Its real distinction is what it chose to ignore.
On Friday, both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, expressed "cautious optimism" over this week's letter from Tehran proposing renewed talks over Iran's nuclear programme. If that optimism comes to fruition, then Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) will be sitting down for discussions for the first time since October 2009.
That, along with an examination of why all sides are edging towards negotiations at this moment, deserved the Page 1 treatment. But you will not find any mention of Clinton and Ashton in Saturday's Guardian. Indeed, you will not find any of its reporters on the story --- The Guardian website merely reprinted a short article from the Associated Press.