Wednesday, March 12, 2008

McClatchy keeping tabs on the debate about nukes in Iran

Most folks know of the splendid work Knight Ridder's Washington bureau did in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, chronicled by Bill Moyers, Kristina Borjesson and many more. It's no stretch to call them the one journalistic organization that got it right.

Fewer people have noticed the second act of that journalistic power play, namely the way many of the same folks performed in the now-McClatchy bureau covering saber-rattling and worse over Iran's proclaimed nuclear intentions. But somebody has noticed. Here's a choice excerpt from a current Columbia Journalism Review report called Lost Over Iran: How the press let the White House craft the narrative about nukes:

One news organization that has been particularly inquisitive on the Iran crisis: McClatchy, née Knight-Ridder, the same outfit celebrated for its skeptical reporting in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Last fall (shortly before the NIE), McClatchy’s Washington bureau did a series of pieces probing the administration’s contentions. “There had been a lot of focus on tactical questions like, Will we bomb?—as opposed to larger questions like, What really is the threat from Iran?” says Warren Strobel, senior correspondent for foreign affairs at McClatchy. “So we sat down last August and had a series of meetings. We very deliberately decided we’d look from the ground up, to look at the most basic questions.”

That approach led to stories that challenged some of the administration’s basic assumptions. The stories didn’t claim that Iran had no nuclear-weapons program or that its intentions were peaceful. Instead, McClatchy’s reporters focused on the lack of evidence and the ambiguities. As one of their headlines put it, NO FIRM EVIDENCE OF IRANIAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Another story flagged recent feelers from Iran, suggesting it might be willing to make a deal to suspend uranium enrichment. Yet another piece surveyed Iran experts and found a broad swath of agreement that, despite the rhetoric that a nuclear weapon would represent an “existential threat” to Israel, Tehran appeared to want a nuclear capability for “the same reason other countries do: to protect itself.”

All of which would have been unremarkable, were it not for the overwhelming chatter in the other direction. “There’s no doubt that [Iran is] moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon,” McCain said last fall, a few minutes after he jokingly sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to a Beach Boys melody. Such talk wasn’t limited to conservatives. Hillary Clinton tried to outflank the administration, asserting in January 2006, “Iran is seeking nuclear weapons” and arguing that the White House actually “chose to downplay the threats.” In April 2006, Joe Klein, Time’s centrist columnist, argued on ABC’s This Week, “We should not take any option, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, off the table.” (McClatchy’s reporters have rarely been invited to join the discussion. “No one comes to us,” says national-security reporter Jonathan Landay. “I did CSPAN once.”)

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