Disgraceful Reporting by the Boston Herald and Others

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The best way to get news is to read actual testimony, reports, transcripts, and speeches. The worst way is to read headlines, unless you like to be subjected to distortions and misunderstandings. In between, one can read news reports and then blogs, comments, and editorials about news reports.

No matter what one reads, the next step is to think about the matter and place it in perspective based on important factors, past events, past news, past communications, history, and so on.

Case in point: the testimony of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper today. See here for his actual testimony in written form. Most important is that he said clearly that Iran is not building nuclear weapons and CIA chief David Petraeus said the same thing, and the latter said he had met with the head of Mossad to convey his view. This portion of his testimony was not reported in the Boston Herald article. Instead, it pieced together two unconnected parts of his testimony and left the impression that Iran was making enriched uranium in order to conduct an attack on the U.S.!! See here. This is disgracefully poor reporting and utterly misleading.

Google provides headlines. Many of these, that I will not cite, are disgraceful too. They leave the impression that Iran has bolstered its threats unilaterally and is suddenly more willing to attack the continental U.S. This is not at all what Clapper said. He said that Iran is “now more willing to conduct an attack on the United States” in the case of a “real or perceived” threat by the U.S. to the regime. In other words, an attack on them or a U.S. threat on them that they considered deadly serious might possibly be met by their attacks on American soil. That’s his opinion, but even that doesn’t get reported accurately. For example, the Washington Post says, according to Google, “launch terrorist attacks inside the United States in response to perceived threats from America and its allies…” Notice that they added the word “terrorist” to Clapper’s testimony and they left out the part about a real threat. This is really pitiful and biased reporting.

In fact, Clapper’s words are heavily hedged in three ways that the reporting doesn’t make clear. First, he said that it was the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador that is what is indicating to the CIA that “some Iranian officials” are more willing to attack the U.S. in response to real and perceived threats on their regime. OK, but that plot is alleged and the evidence for Iran’s involvement is vanishing. It was so far-fetched and so clownish, whom does it convince? Not me at any rate. Maybe the bright boys in the CIA. Clapper seems to be reaching for a convincing story. Second, other parts of his testimony make clear that there are big divisions and conflicts among Iran’s rulers. That is why he hedged by saying “some Iranian officials.” This is hardly a ringing statement that says that Iran has decided to target the U.S.  Third, he says that the top leader “probably” has changed his calculus. How does he know that? It too is hedged language.

In reality, the two short paragraphs on the threat from Iran do not deserve consideration even as major news and they do not deserve scare headlines, much less misinterpreted headlines or biased news reports. There have been numerous threats coming out of Iran about what damage it might choose to inflict if attacked. Their language has waxed as the U.S. threats have waxed. It doesn’t take a CIA with a huge budget to figure out what’s going on. The plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, such as it was, is actually peripheral to the ongoing threat dynamic.

Fox News uses the phrase “emboldened Iran” when it says it is “more willing” to attack the U.S. Where do they get “emboldened” from? That too makes it sound as if Iran, for some unknown reason or unilaterally, has taken upon itself to make the U.S. a target.

Clapper testified that Iran was a cyber threat, along with Russia and China. (Foreign hacking and spying is up on many fronts from many places also.) He didn’t explain why it had risen as a threat. It would be well to ask why Iran has become a cyber threat. Might it not be because it is under attack by the U.S. in many ways and that looking at cyber methods of response is a sensible thing for it to do? Dropping context and history quickly leads to flawed understanding.

2:08 pm on January 31, 2012