I never expect much from the U.S. mainstream media, especially when it comes to the Middle East, but still I’ve been genuinely shocked by the sorry coverage of the conflict surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress.
As other critics have already pointed out, the biggest problem is not so much what the media have been reporting as what they leave out: not just critical perspectives, but also undisputed facts that are essential to understanding the situation. See, for example, “Somebody Needs to Tell The NY Times: Israel Has The Bomb,” by TimesWarp’s Barbara Erickson and “What Was Missing From Coverage of Netanyahu’s Speech” by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting’s Jim Naureckas.
But for me, beyond the New York Times website, my main exposure to the mainstream media is National Public Radio, and I haven’t seen any detailed analysis of its handling of the Iran nuclear issue. I’ve had the impression that its coverage has been at least as bad as the print media’s, but I don’t listen to all of its news broadcasts, so to be sure to be fair, I’ve spent the last few days burrowing through transcripts of past broadcasts at the NPR website. (The audio archives and transcripts there don’t include the network’s top-of-the-hour headlines, just the regular segments from Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and other NPR-produced shows, but there’s no reason to think the short headlines are much different from what’s archived.)
What I found was even more appalling than I’d anticipated. Not that there’s been a lack of attention – on the contrary, just in the last 30 days (through March 15) the network’s two daily newscasts – Morning Edition and All Things Considered – have a run a total of 23 segments containing both the words “Netanyahu” and “Iran.” But even with all that coverage, here are some of the things NPR hasn’t found time to tell its listeners:
Israel has nuclear weapons.
If NPR is where you get your information about the current debate, you’d have to be a longtime listener with a good memory to know that Israel, the chief proponent of aggressive efforts to block any nuclear programs in Iran, itself already has a bulging arsenal of nuclear weapons.
A decade or two back, following Mordechai Vanunu’s revelations, the network seemed to accept the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons as more or less established fact, even as it noted Israel’s policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Then in 2010 All Things Considered host Robert Siegel briefly interviewed Avner Cohen, author of two excellent books on the Israeli nuclear program, after President Obama referred obliquely to that program. Two years later, on the now-discontinued Talk of the Nation show, Yale professor Paul Bracken, author of “The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics,” commented on Israel’s nukes, among others.
In October 2013, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, in an interview with Netanyahu, raised and even pressed the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons, its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the double standard that condemns Iran’s nuclear program but ignores Israel’s. All that is to Inskeep’s credit, even if he posed these questions indirectly, as ones coming from the Middle East not from him, and ultimately let the Israeli leader wriggle away without actually answering them.
But in the 17 months since then, even as Israel and the Israeli lobby have driven the question of Iranian nuclear development to the very forefront of American and international politics, and Netanyahu has warned a cheering U.S. Congress of a Middle East “crisscrossed by nuclear tripwires. A region where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox…. a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare.”
NPR has not found the time to remind his listeners that the region has in fact faced all those threats for decades – from the very government that professes such anxiety about Iran’s non-existent weapons.
Granted, the very fact that Israel has had nukes for so long means that they’re not considered news, but surely they are an important part of the context listeners need when trying to assess the campaign Netanyahu and his minions are leading. Yet even in stories where it would be perfectly natural to note the double standard, such as 2013 piece by Emily Harris entitled “Israelis Disagree On How To Keep Iran From Nuclear Weapons,” this fundamental fact is left unspoken.
Neither U.S. nor Israeli intelligence agencies believe that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
In 2007 – that is, under George W. Bush, not Obama – the U.S. government startled the world by releasing a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – a type of document said to be “the U.S. intelligence community’s most authoritative and coordinated written assessment of a specific national-security issue,” reflecting a consensus of the 17 largest U.S. agencies in that community- called “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities.” “Key Judgment A” began: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Even though it went on to say “we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapon,” the document sent shockwaves through Washington and around the world, because it flatly contradicted the increasingly bellicose warnings that had been emanating from the Bush administration, as well as from Tel Aviv, for years. It was big news, and NPR, appropriately, ran a slew of stories about it. (Just where the pre-2003 Iranian nuclear program was headed is a topic of considerable debate, but here the point is that U.S. intelligence unanimously concluded that it ended in 2003.)
Since then, however, the network seems to have forgotten this momentous document, even though U.S. officials have reaffirmed its conclusions several times. The last reference to it, direct or indirect, that I could find in the transcripts came in May 2012. And on All Things Considered in January 2013, reporter Tom Gjelten blithely informed listeners that “U.S. intelligence agencies say it’s not clear whether Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapon,” without mentioning the those same agencies continued to believe that Iran at that point had had no weapons program for a decade.
All the evidence indicates that the spooks still hold that no such program has existed has existed since 2003, and you’d think that assessment – and the fact that it was arrived at under the Bush, not the Obama, administration – would bear repeating regularly amidst the frenzy stirred up by Netanyahu, the lobby, and their GOP allies about Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, it’s no longer mentioned on NPR.
As for Israel, Al Jazeera and the Guardian last month revealed that during the same month that Netanyahu warned the United Nations General Assembly that Iran could have a nuclear bomb within a year or less, Israeli intelligence judged that Iran “does not appear to be ready” to enrich uranium to the levels necessary for nuclear weapons. That report, based on official documents the Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA, sent to South Africa, was almost as surprising as the U.S. government’s 2007 turnaround. How did NPR handle the story? It didn’t: so far, the network has said not a word about the leak. Granted, no news outlet likes having to cover a competitor’s scoop, but when a story is important enough, most major publications swallow their pride and do so, as the New York Times, the BBC, CNN and many others did in this case. (Interestingly, the Washington Post apparently joined NPR in refusing to report the story at all.)
Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear facilities are subject to regular international inspections, while Israel refuses to sign the treaty or allow any outside inspection of its nuclear installations.
Close listeners to NPR might be aware that Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international agreement that’s supposed to regulate the spread of nuclear technology, because the network’s reporters have mentioned this fact on several occasions. (Sometimes, though, this information mysteriously disappears. The web version of an October 14, 2013 story by Geoff Brumfiel called “Are Iran’s Centrifuges Just Few Turns From A Nuclear Bomb?” included this statement: “Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international agreement that allows nations to develop nuclear technology as long as they don’t build a bomb.” That statement is missing, however, from the version broadcast on All Things Considered. An innocent trim to save a few seconds? Perhaps, but the broadcast version is nearly as long as the web one, and that sentence appears to be the only substantive information that was cut.)
Listeners might even know that as a signatory to the NPT, Iran is subject extensive inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While NPR has reported endlessly on claims that Iran has hidden some of its facilities from the inspectors (claims I’m not taking any position on), it has also reported that, for example, “the IAEA has cameras installed at most of Iran’s enrichment facilities” and even “the uncomfortable fact that of all the signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is the most inspected country on earth.”
What listeners definitely won’t hear, however, is where Israel stands in comparison: aside from Inskeep’s vain effort, cited above, to get Netanyahu to address the question of double standards, I could find no report on NPR pointing out the supreme irony of the whole current crisis: a state that has repeatedly attacked neighboring countries, is known to be armed with advanced nuclear weapons, has never signed the non-proliferation treaty, and won’t allow even its ally the U.S. to inspect its nuclear facilities is attempting to convince the world that Iran, a country that has invaded no one for centuries, has no nuclear weapons and no nuclear weapons program, has signed the NPT, and is already subject to extensive international inspections, is the one that “poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world.”
One small indication of the problem: if you search the NPR archives for “Natanz,” “Fordow,” or Bushehr – the locations of Iranian nuclear facilities – you’ll get scores of hits. But search for “Dimona,” the site of Israel’s main nuclear facility, and you’ll get only a handful of references. Most are from the discontinued Talk of the Nation; in fact, the place in the entire NPR archive where the question of inspections at Dimona is raised is in a 2011 call to TotN from “John in Flagstaff.”
There are only two links to Dimona on the network’s flagship news broadcasts: a 2008 All Things Considered report about a suicide bomber blowing himself up in one of the city’s shopping areas and a 2010 Morning Edition story that’s actually about solar energy in the Mojave Desert in California, but is illustrated on the web with a photo of mirrors from a solar thermal plant outside Dimona!
Netanyahu has been issuing the same hysterical warnings about Iran for more than 20 years.
Netanyahu has been making essentially the same case he made to the U.S. Congress this month since the 1990s. The record is nicely summarized by reporter Murtaza Hussain in a post for The Intercept aptly titled “Benjamin Netanyahu’s Long History of Crying Wolf About Iran’s Nuclear Weapons: In 1992 the then-young politician told Knesset colleagues that Iran was “three to five years away” from nuclear weapons; three years later, when he wrote a book called “Fighting Terrorism”, it was still three to five years away; in 1996, when he first addressed a joint session of Congress, it was “extremely close;” and so on.
Being reminded of that history would help listeners evaluate how seriously to take the Israeli leader’s current warnings, but they haven’t heard much about it on NPR. The only suggestion that I could find in the archives that we’ve heard it all before came from the March 7 edition of the comedy show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, when host Peter Sagal described the scene in Congress before Netanyahu’s most recent performance there:
SAGAL: Bibi, as his friends call him, Netanyahu. It was nuts. Total frenzy in the Congress. Republicans were lined up for days outside the chamber. People were actually scalping tickets. Republicans – old-school Republicans – were showing off their worn, black tour T-shirts from the time Bibi spoke in Congress about how Iran was months away from getting a nuke back in 1996. Of course, back then, he was just opening for Hootie & the Blowfish.
The Israel lobby is the key force behind the Congressional opposition to a negotiated deal with Iran; Sen. Tom Cotton in particular is their man.
Bad as it is that NPR doesn’t tell us so much we need to know about Iran and Israel, what’s worst is what it’s not telling us about Washington: specifically, that from the start the whole uproar about Iran’s nuclear work has been ginned up and manipulated by Israel and the Israel lobby.
As always, NPR’s reporters focus all their attention, and thus their listeners’, on the party-political (Republicans vs. Dems) dimension of the controversy – John Boehner engineering the invitation to Netanyahu to snub Obama, Tom Cotton and his GOP colleagues sending their letter to Iran to undermine John Kerry’s diplomacy, and so on – and never looking behind the curtain to identify the forces pulling the puppet strings. The network hasn’t even mentioned that Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was arranged in collusion with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, a fact widely reported in other media. For the last week, since the release of 47 senators’ letter, it’s been all over Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and the other day reporter Ailsa Chang did a profile entitled “Tom Cotton: The Freshman Senator Behind The Iran Letter.” She even found a Harvard professor to interview about his memories of Cotton in his political philosophy class, but never mentioned the role of key lobby operatives William Kristol, Dan Senor, and Jennifer Rubin in launching his political career, nor the amply documented fact that his major sources of campaign funding have been billionaire Israel advocates Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, and their friends in the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as Kristol, his family, and his Emergency Committee for Israel. (See note below.)
The problem is not that NPR never talks about these folks. Adelson, at least, has been mentioned on the air at least nine times in the last year – in relation to presidential campaign spending, his plans to open a casino in Japan, a hacker attack on one of his casinos, his heavy spending to defeat the legalization of marijuana in Florida and to stop Internet gambling – just not in relation to Israel, even though his friend Newt Gingrich had previously explained to NPR that that country is “the central value in [Adelson’s] life.” Nor does the network explain that Adelson is a personal friend of Netanyahu, his chief foreign funder, and the owner of Israel Hayom, the Bibi-boosting newspaper that’s now Israel’s most widely read – largely because Adelson pays for it to be given away free.
In that light, it’s hardly a surprise that the network made no mention of the presence of Adelson and his Israeli wife Miriam at Netanyahu’s recent speech – even though Bill Moyers, the most esteemed of public broadcasters, began his commentary on it this way: “Everything you need to know about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress Tuesday was the presence in the visitor’s gallery of one man – Sheldon Adelson. ”
The one NPR story I could find that even hints at Adelson’s real power inWashington was a Peter Kenyon piece headlined “Will Hard-Line Critics Scuttle Iranian Talks?,” which sounds as if it might have aired this week but was actually broadcast on Morning Edition in October, 2013. Citing the casino magnate as his example of “pro-Israel hardliners who make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dire warnings sound tame,” Kenyon played a soundbite – taken from Mondoweiss, which he identified by name – of Adelson suggesting that the U.S. drop an atomic bomb on an Iranian desert, then say “See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran.”
The very next sentence of Kenyon’s report, however, shows the superficiality of the analysis NPR apparently wants to project: “Analysts say it’s not the super-hawks who are the biggest worry, though, but the U.S. Congress.” In context, it’s pretty clear that by “super-hawks” he was referring to “pro-Israel hardliners” like Adelson, but by contrasting that group and the Congress, Kenyon obscures the plain and important truth: the politicians joining the effort to scuttle the negotiations were responding to guidance, pressure, and inducements coming from the “pro-Israel” crowd.
Kenyon didn’t use the phrase “Israel lobby,” but other NPR reporters do, with some frequency – just in a very particular sense. In years past, particularly in the wake of the release of Walt and Mearsheimer’s original paper on the lobby, then their book, the network showed at least occasional glimmers of openness to discussing the role of the lobby in all its glory – in 2006 Morning Edition dedicated a story to the their work and the debate it sparked; their original London Review of Books article was apparently even posted on the network website (no more, though a link to it on the LRB site remains); both authors were interviewed on Talk of the Nation in 2007, and Walt came back alone to the same show in 2009, after Osama Bin Laden recommended their book in a taped message.
In recent years, however, there’s been no reference to the lobby in the broad sense in which Walt and Mearsheimer wrote of it. Now, the phrase appears only in reference to AIPAC, which is regularly tagged as “the pro-Israel lobby.” Clearly, that organization is by now too prominent to ignore entirely. Sometimes it’s even called “the powerful pro-Israel lobby.” But what’s never communicated is that AIPAC is only the tip of the spear, just the most visible element in a vast network that also includes countless other Israel-first organizations, think tanks, wealthy donors, pols, PACs, pundits, academics, and government staffers – not to mention media outlets.
This network reaches into every corner of American life. As everyone knows, it has no formal structure, and there are significant political conflicts within it. But collectively it sets – and actively enforces – tight limits on the range of opinion and policy options about Israel that are considered “responsible” and acceptable in our public life. That’s a central feature of American politics, especially inside the Beltway, but you don’t hear about it on NPR.
Usually, that is. But last week, amazingly enough, Morning Edition listeners got a glimpse of the truth – not directly from an NPR reporter, nor from a professional political analyst, but from a Palestinian permaculture specialist named Murad al-Khuffash, who lives in the West Bank village of Marda, in the shadow of the Ariel settlement. In an interview with Steve Inskeep, he complained that the world is doing nothing to stop Israel from withholding the taxes revenues due to the Palestinians. Inskeep asked why.
AL-KHUFFASH: Why? Because they control the White House. The lobby controls the White House
INSKEEP: When you said the lobby, they control the White House, what did you mean?
AL-KHUFFASH: The Zionist lobby or the Jewish lobby in America. Who controls the White House? They control the White House.
How did that ever get on NPR’s air? I can only guess that Inskeep and his bosses assumed listeners would dismiss Al-Khuffash as a crazy Arab caught up in delusional conspiracy theory. Me, I think the network should hire him to cover Washington. I’m not holding my breath, though.
Critical experts don’t get interviewed.
When the network seeks out analysts to comment on the Iran-nukes controversy, it never, or almost never, turns to those who are most critical of the U.S. approach and the Israeli role in shaping it, even though the experts I’m thinking of are close at hand (they all live and work inside the Beltway) and are indisputably among those best qualified to discuss these issues.
Gareth Porter: Porter, an award-winning independent “investigative historian” and journalist – and an outspoken progressive since the Vietnam War – has zeroed in more closely than any other scholar on the questions at the heart of the current public debate about Iran: is it actually trying to develop nuclear weapons? In his searing book “Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare” and in frequent online posts – including in recent weeks “The long history of Israel gaming the ‘Iranian threat’” and “The real story behind the Republicans’ Iran letter“- presents a richly detailed analysis of the lies, deception, manipulation, and omissions U.S. and Israeli officials have used over several decades to create a false narrative, which was then purveyed to the public through uncritical news media.
How often has Porter been interviewed on NPR? Exactly once, in a 2008 segment on Shiite militias in Iraq (and to add insult to injury the network’s transcript of that one identifies his comments as coming from “BLOCK” – presumably a confusion with host Melissa Block, though she and Porter don’t sound much alike!)
Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council: The National Iranian American Council is a D.C.-based non-profit that advocates for human rights and democracy and Iran but also against war and broad sanctions against Iran.
Parsi, its founder and president, got his Ph.D. for a dissertation on Israeli-Iranian relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and has written two highly pertinent books: “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States” (2007), which won several mainstream awards, and “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran” (2012). Marashi, the council’s research director, previously worked at the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Both used to be quoted from time to time on NPR, but, as best I can determine, Marashi hasn’t been on the air in more than two years, while Parsi was interviewed only once in 2014 (about the political and economic situation inside Iran and not at all this year.
The Leveretts: Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, a husband-wife team, have impeccable establishment credentials: Flynt, before leaving government service in 2003, served as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and as a senior analyst at the CIA. Hillary Mann Leverett, now a lecturer at American University and CEO of a “political risk consultancy,” served, among other roles, as Director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council and as a negotiator with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and Iraq during the early years of the G.W. Bush administration; under Bill Clinton, she was, among other things, Associate Director for Near Eastern Affairs at the National Security Council.
Between 2005 and 2012 they were interviewed quite often on NPR. But in January 2013 they published Going to Tehran, a book arguing for a broad rapprochement with Iran. Since then, as best I can tell, they haven’t been on NPR at all. (Their frequent appearances on more honest media outlets, such as RT and Democracy Now, are archived at their website, goingtotehran.com).)
Given the analyses offered by Porter and NIAC’s Parsi and Marashi – in particular, their willingness to point to Israeli machinations as a central element in the whole picture – it’s hardly surprising that NPR won’t let them near its mics to talk about the Iran issue, though of course a network actually devoted to truth or even just genuine diversity of opinion would do so. But extending the blackout on critical opinion to the likes of the Leveretts, despite their “national security” credentials, suggests to me – at the risk of being accused of “conspiracy theory” – that someone in authority NPR decided a couple of years back, as the crisis sharpened, that the network would no longer allow any authoritative voices that might undermine the official story of an Iranian threat.
On the other hand, NPR routinely interviews analysts from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) about Iran, among many other issues, without ever noting that WINEP is a spin-off from AIPAC, according to a former AIPAC official who was in the room when “the powerful pro-Israel lobby” decided it would be useful to create “an AIPAC controlled think-tank that would disseminate the AIPAC line but in a way that would disguise its connections.” Even NPR’s own ombudsman has called out the network on precisely this point – to no avail.
So much for NPR’s About-page boast that “always we dig, question, examine and explore. We never settle for obvious answers and predictable stereotypes.”
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NOTE: Chang and other NPR reporters wouldn’t even need to do their own primary research to learn about Cotton’s funders – all they would need to do is a little googling, because others have already explored the question in detail. Mondoweiss.net, for one, has posted a series of articles summarizing the evidence collected by journalists for LobeLog, Huffington Post, and other sites: See, for example, “Senator who spearheaded letter to Iran got $1 million from Kristol’s ‘Emergency C’tee for Israel’,” “Neocon meteor Sen. Cotton is funded by Abrams, Adelson and Kristol and loves war a little too much,” and “Cotton’s rise was fueled by pro-Israel money– but ‘NYT’ and Matthews won’t tell you so.”
On lobby operatives as Cotton’s mentors and promoters, see Jim Lobe’s “OMG! Cotton is Kristol’s Protege,” Lobe and Eli Clifton’s “GOP’s Man of the Moment Promoted by RJC’s Singer and Adelson,” Paul Blumenthal’s “Republicans And Iran Deal Opponents Are Funded By The Same Mega-Donors,” Rubin’s 2012 column “Tom Cotton: No ordinary freshman congressman,” and a 2013 David Weigel post that originally had the title “Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard has a crush on Tom Cotton” until Slate changed it to “Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Weekly Standard).”
Henry Norr is a retired journalist, a radio-news junkie, and an activist for Palestinian rights, among other causes.