Chomsky’s right: The New York Times’ latest big lie

More misleading half-truths from a paper too cowed by power and myth to tell the truth about U.S. foreign policy

Topics: New York Times, Iran, Media Criticism, quotation marks, Nuclear Weapons, ethics, Journalism, Obama administration, Editor's Picks, ,

Chomsky's right: The New York Times' latest big lie (Credit: Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

Never before have I written a column concerning nothing more than a pair of quotation marks. Then again, never until now have I seen the power of punctuation so perniciously deployed.

It is not a new trick. Very popular in hackdom during the Cold War decades. Enclose something in quotation marks and all between them is instantly de-legitimized; no argument or explanation need be made. Here, try it:

“… the Cuban ‘doctors’ sent to Angola…”

Or: “… Soviet-made ‘farm equipment’ in Portugal since its 1974 revolution…”

Well, they were doctors and it was farm equipment. In the latter category I sat in a Soviet tractor out in the Portuguese vineyards, and damn it if the camponês did not find it useful.

In the end, this kind of thing is simply passive aggression, my least favorite neurosis. No one actively lies such that one can confront and reveal. It is lying by misleading and by implication, so sending us off full of groundless conviction and prejudice.

In this case, we have the irresponsible use of inverted commas, as the Brits say, to shape national opinion on a question of vital importance. The question is Iran. And now to the supine, corrupted and corrupting organ.

You have taken a wild guess, and you are right. We have our familiar problem with our friends on Eighth Avenue, the New York Times, faithful servants of the sanctioned orthodoxy. I give these folks an “A” for clever disguise this time, and I flunk them in the professional ethics class. Simply shameful, this round of reckless chicanery.

Here is the situation.

As all know, a deal with Iran over its nuclear program is the biggest game going these days — an historic opportunity, as previously asserted in this space. Fumble this, and the Obama administration will go down as hopelessly moronic on the foreign-relations side.

You may know, too, that a round of talks between six world powers and the Iranians just hit a pothole. It is essential to understand why.

The paradox is apparent, not real. Knowing why reveals what a nation with imperial ambitions looks like when it is nearing exhaustion and would rather decline than shape up, re-imagine itself, and take a new and constructive place in the global community. Not knowing why encourages Americans to preserve their righteous self-image even as the moths of history chew holes in it.

Best, in Washington’s view, that we do not know why talks in Geneva last weekend failed.

Complex story, but we can take care of it simply. Iran wants a nuclear program, and this includes the capacity to enrich uranium. This is Iran’s right under international law. Washington and the major European powers do not want Iran to have such a program because they worry Iran will eventually build a nuclear weapon. The talks in Geneva went sour because the U.S. and the Europeans demanded that Iran surrender its right.

O.K. Here is the lead in the Times report from the City of Diplomacy:

      The Iranian government’s insistence on formal recognition

      of its “right” to enrich uranium emerged as a major obstacle,

      diplomats said Sunday.

Two big problems. Nothing emerged as an obstacle in Geneva other than Secretary of State Kerry’s duplicity, given that his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, now charges him with misleading Iran as to demands to be made on the enrichment question. Iran has been quite clear all along: Enrichment under law will never get on the table. Zarif would have skipped the trip had he known Kerry’s plans; Kerry knew this.

Then the quotation marks. With them, the Times proposes to deprive Iran of its statutory rights so that Washington can lie to us as well as to the Iranians.

You are all set now for the corker. You search through the piece to understand the quotation marks, and you come to this, edited down so as to get to the point:

       Iran has asserted repeatedly that it has the right to enrich uranium….

       The Obama administration is prepared to allow Iran to enrich

      uranium to the low level of 3.5 percent…. But the administration

       is not prepared to acknowledge at this point that Iran has a “right”

       to enrich….

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This is how the consciousness of empire is dribbled into us and sustained, one touch at a time. Iran asserts only the validity of international law. What the administration is prepared to allow or acknowledge has nothing to do with what Iran can and cannot do as a sovereign nation.

This is also why these talks are very likely to fail. If they do, it will be the fault of Washington and its allies and the complicit media. It is this kind of language that enables Congress to begin debates on new sanctions against Iran. Concessions and demands are different: Iran may choose to concede this or that; the U.S. cannot demand those things by pretending international law does not (somehow) apply.

In my view, we are amid a pandemic of misinformation as to our global behavior. The dishonesty with which we are given the world — an essentially fantastic version of it — is becoming abject to the point of danger. And it is frighteningly willful. Here is the paradox: We cannot bear to see things as they are because things as they are constitute a refutation of our dearest mythologies, but we must see things as they are if we are to make sense of ourselves in the 21st century.

The Iran case has just become urgent in this regard. As I have asserted previously, it will be profoundly detrimental if the U.S. and the Europeans do not pursue what is a patently serious effort on Iran’s part to claim its rights and ease the world’s worries as to its nuclear program.

If the honorable editor will permit the unconventional, two things belong in caps so that a modest few Americans might stop wandering in the dark purposely created by the Times and all the other media too weak-minded to make judgments without reference to the Times:

ONE: IRAN HAS AN UNAMBIGUOUS RIGHT UNDER LAW TO A NUCLEAR PROGRAM, INCLUDING ENRICHMENT, EVEN IF THIS MAKES IT (AS IT WILL) NEARLY CAPABLE OF WEAPONIZING. READ YOUR DAILY NEWS DOSAGE WITH THIS IN MIND.

TWO. THERE IS ZERO EVIDENCE THAT IRAN DESIRES A NUCLEAR WEAPON, AND DECADES OF POLICY TO INDICATE IT PREFERS A NUCLEAR-FREE MIDDLE EAST. THERE IS ONLY ONE REASON IRAN WOULD CHANGE ITS MIND: ISRAEL’S NEVER-MENTIONED ARSENAL OF NUKES. THE MOTIVE WOULD BE DETERRENCE, AND MOST OF US WORSHIPPED AT THE ALTAR OF DETERRENCE WELL ENOUGH DURING THE COLD WAR. IRAN HAS SIGNED THE NUCLEAR NON-PROLIFERATION TREATY; ISRAEL DECLINES TO DO SO.

The adage among properly cynical diplomats used to be that they were sent abroad to lie for their country. During the Cold War, as Washington’s sponsored atrocities grew evident, the thought took a turn: Diplomats were sent abroad to lie to their country.

Consider it a template and apply it to our press folk.

Correspondents used to be sent abroad to keep the country informed (in theory, at least). Now correspondents go forth to send home a simulacrum of truth, a semblance, while keeping their country misinformed.

It is no good positing some golden age of spotless integrity, some yesteryear when newspapers, the wires and broadcasters glistened with high principle. There never was such a time. A good press is ever a work in progress, requiring the calloused hands of each generation to make it however good it can, always and by definition short of any ideal.

Too far short when one considers this columnist’s cohort.

Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.

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