(updated below - Update II)
On Meet the Press yesterday during an interview with Barack Obama, Tim Russert said:
The administration, we have reported at NBC, are drawing up some plans for potential airstrikes in Iran at different missile weapons factories or special force compounds because we have indications, evidence that the Iranians are helping some of their supporters within Iraq to kill U.S. troops.
It's unclear whether the "we" in Russert's statement ("we have indications, evidence") refers to the U.S. Government or NBC News, though that distinction is essentially nonexistent. Russert didn't bother to describe this purported "evidence" leading to our planning air strikes against Iran, but he did then ask Obama: "If it could be demonstrated that was a fact, would you be in support of such limited attacks in Iran?"
Like clockwork, the administration's most stalwart surge supporter/journalist -- the New York Times' Michael Gordon -- has a lengthy article today bolstering the administration's war-justifying accusations against Iran. It claims in the lead sentence that "militants from the Lebanese group Hezbollah have been training Iraqi militia fighters at a camp near Tehran," and that "the training, the Americans say, is carried out at several camps near Tehran that are overseen by the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Command, and the instruction is carried out by militants from Hezbollah, which has long been supported by the Quds Force."
As usual with Gordon's articles, nothing is done here other than uncritically repeating Bush administration claims under the cover of anonymity. Virtually every paragraph in this article is nothing more a mindless recitation of uncorroborated assertions which he copies from Bush officials and then weaves into a news narrative, with the phrase "American officials say" tacked on at the end or the phrase "according to officials" unobtrusively interspersed in the middle, as in:
In a possible effort to be less obtrusive, it appears that Iran is now bringing small groups of Iraqi Shiite militants to camps in Iran, where they are taught how to do their own training, American officials say.
The militants then return to Iraq to teach comrades how to fire rockets and mortars, fight as snipers or assemble explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb made of Iranian components, according to American officials. The officials describe this approach as “training the trainers."
As presented, the "news" here isn't that Bush officials are making these accusations; the news, as Gordon reports it, is what the Iranians are allegedly doing, all based on anonymous, unchallenged Bush claims. It's nothing more than yet another Bush administration press release masquerading as a New York Times article on Iranian involvement in Iraq.
Worse, despite noting that "there has been debate among experts about the extent to which Iran is responsible for instability in Iraq," the article does not contain a single skeptical word about any of these accusations, nor does it quote a single "expert" who questions or disputes them. This omission is particularly glaring in light of this McClatchy article from yesterday reporting that "the Iraqi Government seemed to distance itself from U.S. accusations towards Iran," which echoes an Agence-France-Press report that "Iraq said on Sunday it has no evidence that Iran was supplying militias engaged in fierce street fighting with security forces in Baghdad." There's not a word about any of that in Gordon's article (though it does note that the Iraqi government "announced Sunday that it would conduct its own inquiry into accusations of Iranian intervention in Iraq and document any interference").
Gordon's reporting is as predictable as it is uncritical and unreliable. Any time the administration ratchets up its war-threatening rhetoric with Iran, Gordon -- who was almost as responsible as Judy Miller for some of the NYT's most dubious pre-war articles uncritically mouthing administration claims -- pops up with a prominent article that does nothing other than repeat Government claims as fact. In fact, the claims he breathlessly passes along today -- that Iran is using Hezbollah to train Iraqi militants to kill American troops inside Iraq -- are the exact same claims he uncritically "reported" in July of last year, also based exclusively on the claims of Bush officials.
As always, Gordon does all this by granting anonymity to Bush officials to recite these accusations even though (a) such anonymity plainly violates (in multiple ways) the NYT's own anonymity policy adopted in the wake of the Judy-Miller/Michael-Gordon debacle and (b) Gordon's Iran reporting has been specifically criticized by the NYT's previous Public Editor, Byron Calame, for granting anonymity to Bush officials to make accusations without any explanation as to why anonymity was granted, and Calame also criticized Gordon's "editors [because they] didn't make sure all conflicting views were always clearly reported." (Five months later -- in July, 2007 -- the current Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, also criticized Gordon's reporting (among others) for "slipp[ing] into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda's role in Iraq").
Yet here are the NYT and Gordon, yet again, employing exactly these same tactics to disseminate administration accusations against its current Enemy. As Calame put it back in February of 2007 while criticizing Gordon's reporting on Administration claims of Iranian involvement in Iraq:
COVERAGE of the American saber-rattling about Iranian intervention in Iraq posed an important test for The New York Times, given the paper's discredited pre-war articles about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And it has triggered a rash of complaints from readers who believed The Times was again serving as a megaphone for the White House. . . .The administration's war-threatening rhetoric against Iran has plainly reached new heights in the last several weeks. Whether they really intend to follow through on those threats before Bush leaves office is unclear, though some commentators with a history of insight and prescience -- such as Scott Ritter -- are convinced they will. But what is clear is that the administration has no better ally in disseminating its war-provoking accusations than Michael Gordon and his NYT Editors, for whom "reporting" consists of repeating whatever Bush officials say -- no matter how significant or dubious -- and to do so without challenge and while baselessly granting them anonymity to make their provocative accusations without accountability.
The situation closely parallels the pre-war period when The Times prominently reported that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Deeply shamed when they were not found, the paper publicly acknowledged that its coverage had been "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."
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"The Art of the Possible" is a newly launched blog devoted to "bring[ing] together liberal and libertarian writers who agree on certain politically and morally enlightened essentials." Its writers include Jim Henley and Mona of Unqualified Offerings. They have published an interview with me this morning on an eclectic variety of topics.
UPDATE: The blog Abu Muqawama, which often has excellent coverage of the Middle East and terrorism-related issues, has an analysis of the Gordon story today (h/t Laura Rozen). They label Gordon "a good reporter" but then add this about today's article (emphasis in original):
This is the official U.S. case. Michael Gordon is a good reporter, but he is highly reliant on high-level official (anonymous) sources for stories like this. As one of Dr. iRack's trusted friends points out, Gordon "is in essence repeating a narrative that was given to him." In other words, none of this is "independent" of the information that MNF-I is likely to provide--it is the information that MNF-I is likely to provide. The danger in stories like this is the risk of creating an echo chamber that produces the illusion of outside corroboration for administration claims when they do no such thing. Instead, stories like this should be viewed as narrative "shaping" operations. Moreover, it is worth remembering that Michael Gordon has a track record here of uncritically parroting administration positions. After all, this is the same Gordon who penned many stories with his colleague Judy Miller on Iraqi WMD based on anonymous official sources--stories that were then cited as corroborating evidence by senior U.S. officials who, it turned out, were the conduits for the information in the first place.
I really don't understand how a reporter who "is in essence repeating a narrative that was given to him" by the Government; none of whose reporting in this article is "independent"; and whose reporting thus carries "the risk of creating an echo chamber that produces the illusion of outside corroboration for administration claims" and who "has a track record of uncritically parroting administration positions" can possibly -- at the same time -- be considered a "good reporter." Isn't all of that behavior the defining attribute of a rank government propagandist, and the very antithesis of "good reporting"?
It was this "echo chamber" behavior by Gordon that allowed Dick Cheney to go on Meet the Press prior to the invasion and claim that even the NYT reported that Saddam had sought to obtain aluminum tubes of the type necessary to build a centrifuge. The Government had fed Miller and Gordon that claim; they mindlessly re-printed it; and then the Government cited their "reporting" as proof that it was true. How can someone who did that -- and continues repeatedly to do it -- be anything close to a "good reporter"?
In any event, the fact that even those who consider Gordon to be a "good reporter" recognize what his work really is speaks volumes about the true function of Gordon and his NYT editors. Abu Muqawama counsels that "we should reserve at least a bit of critical judgement" about the government claims passed on by Gordon's story, but "critical judgment" of that sort would, by definition, already be built into any story by an actual "good reporter," and it is that complete lack of critical judgment which is the hallmark of Gordon's reporting.
UPDATE II: For a superb analysis of the current situation in Iraq, including the role of Iran, see this detailed piece by the always-excellent journalist Nir Rosen, who spent several years in Iraq after our invasion.
For real journalism on Iraq, watch this interview (in two 10-minute clips) of Rosen by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now from last month, after Rosen returned from his latest trip to Iraq (where he does not rely on the U.S. military to select his itinerary and herd him around):