Fact Checking the Media on Iran

In the wake of the latest IAEA report on the status of Iran's nuclear program, the confrontational tone of the US media and politicians has escalated considerably. What's more, the same media and politicians have been distorting or falsely characterizing the findings of the report and of the US and Israeli intelligence communities, taking them to confirm that Iran is currently trying to acquire nuclear weapons when, in fact, they do not.

Distortions and falsehoods justified one recent US war. We won't let them justify another.

In December, Just Foreign Policy began to aggressively monitor the media for these misleading practices. And some major media outlets have responded. Check out who's been nabbed, who's repented, and who just won't admit that they've done wrong.

Washington Post

Offense: "Iran's quest to possess nuclear weapons"
Outcome: Full Acknowledgement, Formal Correction with Editor's Note

In December, Just Foreign Policy initiated a campaign to get the Washington Post to correct a photo gallery headline which asserted as if it were fact the mere allegation that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Over 1500 Just Foreign Policy advocates emailed the Post ombudsman, Patrick Pexton. In response, the Post edited their headline and added an editor's note to explain the change. Mr. Pexton also wrote about the issue in his Sunday column.

Read more:

Offense: "Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon"
Outcome: Text Corrected, No Editor's Note

On January 19, 2012, a Washington Post article evoked a bit of deja vu when it claimed that "Israel’s supporters worry that Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon and greater instability in the Middle East pose existential threats to Israel," despite the fact that the paper's own ombudsman had agreed just a month before that this particular shorthand was "misleading." An email was sent to Mr. Pexton, the Post's ombudsman, informing him of the infraction. The online text was subsequently corrected, about six hours after its initial publication. Read the full account, with original screenshots >

New York Times

Offense: "Iran's nuclear program has a military objective"
Outcome: Acknowledgement; Text Corrected, No Editor's Note

On January 4, 2012, the New York Times published an article that falsely claimed that the latest IAEA report assessed that "Iran's nuclear program has a military objective." The Times deleted this error without publishing a correction. What's more, on the same day, another article in the Times referred to Iran's "development of nuclear weapons" as if it were a known fact that Iran were engaging in such activity.

Robert Naiman's article on the issue was published in a number of outlets, including the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting also picked up the case and issued an action alert. The Times public editor ultimately responded in his column, recognizing the justice of our criticism, but falling short of publishing a correction.

Read more:

Offenses: 1. Ayatollah Khamenei said "that it was a mistake for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons program," &
2. "[S]ome analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling."
Outcome: No Acknowledgement

In the lead up to the April Istanbul talks between the P5+1 and Iran, the New York Times published an inflammatory piece about Iran's leadership that borders on racist. The April 14, 2012 piece was meant to call into question Khamenei's assertions that Iran is not working on nuclear weapons--first by attempting to demonstrate contradictions in his own public statements, and second, by appeal to "taqiyya", a Shia doctrine of religious dissembling. But the arguments presented by the Times reporter James Risen are unsound.

First, according to the Times' own reporting, Khamenei said, referring to Qaddafi, that "this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’" Contrary to the Times' interpretation, there is no reference in Khamenei's quote to a "nuclear weapons program", only to "nuclear facilities", which are not the same thing.

Not only is the second claim unsubstantiated--the assertion is not attributed to any analyst--but it displays a total lack of understanding of the concept of taqiyya. As Juan Cole noted in his criticism of the Times article, not only has taqiyya fallen out of favor in Shia dogma, but it was never a license to lie about anything one wished--only to dissemble about being Shia in order to avoid persecution and death.

Just Foreign Policy called upon the New York Times to correct their article; but despite nearly 2400 email messages from our members, the Times never responded.

Offense: Claiming that it was confirmed that Hezbollah was behind the Bulgaria bus bombing when public evidence was inconclusive
Outcome: No Acknowledgement

On July 19, 2012, the New York Times ran a piece on the Bulgaria bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists. The article began by stating that an anonymous American official had confirmed that the bomber was a member of Hezbollah; yet, the piece contained no confirming evidence. Other news outlets, such as the Washington Post, were far more skeptical in their reporting. The Times did not respond to our inquiries. To date, no confirming evidence has been made public to corroborate the Times's claims.


Offense: The goal of US policy is "to convince Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program"
Outcome: Responded; Maintains Innocence, Will Not Correct

On January 8, 2012, NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday reporter Tom Gjelten said, "The goal for the U.S. and its allies … [is] to convince Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program." But one cannot give up something one does not have, and thus this claim implied that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, which is not a known fact. Just Foreign Policy began a campaign to get NPR to issue a correction, but the ombudsman instead defended the reporting with a rather sketchy linguistic analysis of the indefinite article.


Offense: Editing out Panetta's assertion, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No."
Outcome: Responded; Maintains Innocence, Will Not Correct

Just Foreign Policy joined FAIR in calling out PBS's NewsHour in their misleading edit of a clip in which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon at the moment; however, US intelligence believes them to be seeking a nuclear capability. NewsHour edited out the first part of the quote, only leaving the part about Iran seeking a nuclear capability, thus potentially misleading viewers into believing that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

PBS's ombudsman was admittedly "mystified" by the edit. Even the NewsHour editor responsible for the segment said that "it would have been better had we not lopped off the first part of the Panetta quote." However, PBS did not go so far as to admit wrongdoing, and refused to issue a correction.

Meet the Press

Offense: Santorum made false claim that Iran doesn't allow weapons inspectors into the country; Gregory did not correct
Outcome: No Acknowledgement

On January 1, 2012, Rick Santorum, candidate for the Republican nomination for president, told David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press that, unlike President Obama, he would "be saying to the Iranians, you either open up those [nuclear] facilities, you begin to dismantle them and, and make them available to inspectors, or we will degrade those facilities through airstrikes and make it very public that we are doing that." Gregory did not challenge this claim, even though he should have known full well that Iran's nuclear program is currently under inspection by the IAEA. NBC, Meet the Press, nor David Gregory responded to our criticism. Read more >