< Media Skepticism About Iran Assassination Plot

Transcript

Friday, October 14, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the US had successfully thwarted an Iranian attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

Factions of the Iranian government were behind the plan to assassinate the Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

...on US soil, and it includes the planned use of bombs and a foiled murder-for-hire plot that, get this, involves an opium deal with a Mexican drug cartel.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT

Two men, one a, a naturalized US citizen, another an Iranian, both charged.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

You can't make it up and it is, indeed, both terrifying and perplexing all at the same time..

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The news was met with a swift reaction by the Obama Administration, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling the plot a dangerous escalation for which Iran must be held accountable, and Vice President Joe Biden on the morning talk show circuit. Here he is on Good Morning America.

VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:

And so, this is really over the top. They have to be held accountable, and we're in the process of uniting world public opinion toward continuing to isolate and condemn their behavior.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The US has already imposed new sanctions on Iran and is proposing more. But a number of experts on Iran have questioned the plausibility of the story. The American media were criticized in 2003 during the run-up to the war on Iraq for accepting Bush Administration assertions at face value. But according to Atlantic Associate Editor Max Fisher, the media are doing a better job with this story.

MAX FISHER:

Usually something like this, the media angle and the media coverage tends to emphasize the threat, the danger, here's how the US government is responding, here's the larger threat behind it. But the media response this time has been a lot more nuanced, and they moved to that really quickly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Almost immediately after Holder's announcement of the alleged plot, you wrote that the Obama Administration's story was possible, but that a lot of its elements didn't really add up. How so?

MAX FISHER:

Well, it's true that Iran is a state sponsor of terror and it's true that Iran has a pretty bad relationship with Saudi Arabia. It's not clear what they would get out of this. It's really not clear what it would do for Iran's standing in the region or in the world. The Quds force is brutal but they're not driven by ideology. They're very cool headed in what they choose to do and don't do.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So what questions do you think the media should be asking right now about this alleged assassination attempt?

MAX FISHER:

Why would the group do this? Is this consistent with what the Revolutionary Guard has done before? Is it consistent with Iranian interests? What ways could this have happened, other than what the government presents?

That doesn't mean assuming that the government is lying, but asking more questions about the incident itself, instead of the usual response, which is asking okay well, now that this happened, what comes next? This story is absolutely full of holes. And some of the bigger outlets — The Times, Reuters, The Financial Times, Christian Science Monitor have been taking an objective, careful stance and saying, listen, there's still reason to think it might be true, but really aggressively exploring questions about what actually happened and what the government is saying has happened. Although, you know, you can still see the kind of what you might call the 2003-Iraq-run-up style of coverage on this. The Washington Post response was to run a story looking at why Iran would want to kill a Saudi ambassador - very accurate, very professionally done. It was a great story. But it does reflect kind of an overall editorial assumption that when we hear about a threat, our response as part of the media is to explain it, rather than being a little bit more of a watchdog on the claim of the threat.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Have you noticed a difference in the coverage in the broadcast media versus the print media?

MAX FISHER:

I haven't really watched much cable news.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Ah-ha.

MAX FISHER:

Yeah. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Max, we seem to be at a bit of a loss. Most people get their information from television, which you don't consume. How about the blogosphere?

MAX FISHER:

You know, the blogosphere has been interesting. Immediately, you very understandably saw across the blogs people explaining okay, well, why would Iran have done this? But within just a couple of hours, there was a much quicker turnaround. And I think a big part of that is the fact that the blogosphere has a lot of policy experts, field experts, academics who might not have the same incentive structure as a journalist. Gary Sick, who was on the National Security Council under Ford and Carter published a blog post. He made a similar case to what I and other people had made, that is this is true, it would depart from everything that Iran has done before, and there's very big reasons to be skeptical of it. And, you know, he put this up in his blog and a lot of people could access it, including a lot of reporters. And I think it really very quickly shifted the tenor of the coverage. And I think that's one of the great things about the blogosphere, is that there's less of a wall between policy experts and readers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So, given the caveat that you are principally a newspaper guy, you think that the coverage was better this time partially because of the slam against the media for its run-up-to-the-Iraq-war coverage and partially because of the expertise that's coming out of the blogosphere?

MAX FISHER:

I think that it's mostly the media habits that were developed after September 11th have been falling away. And I think that, you know, socially in the US there's much of a skepticism towards terrorism than there was even just one or two years ago. I mean, if you go back to 2009, the underwear bomber, Omar Abdulmutallab who tried to blow up the plane over Detroit, and it was like the day before Christmas, the media response was the same one that had been there since 2003, which is to immediately say, wow, what is the scary group behind this. And the kind of day two and day three stories were about what do we do about this group in Yemen, how much of a threat do they pose? Should we intervene militarily in Yemen, which we didn't do but we did send a lot more drones. So it's, it's been a very recent shift, I think, towards this model of skepticism.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

After the announcement, the White House acted quickly on sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately called the plot a dangerous escalation for which Iran must be held accountable. Vice President Biden did the morning show circuit on Wednesday, talking about uniting the world against Iran's behavior. What do you make of this swift coordinated response by the administration, amid what you think is appropriate skepticism?

MAX FISHER:

The way that they have organized the departments all releasing their announcement at the same time and ending those announcements with, here are the policy actions we're taking, certainly suggest that there's a big policy end to this and that that is sanctioning and isolating Iran. Now it's, it's an open question whether they earnestly arrived at this after hearing about the plot. But it, it does certainly give the appearance that they are using this to pursue a policy end that they had in mind before hearing about the plot.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Doesn't it have an eerie resonance with —

MAX FISHER:

Yes, it does.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] — with what we know about people in the Bush Administration's desire to go after Iraq prior to the events of 9/11?

MAX FISHER:

Someone pointed out to me that the U.S. would be unlikely to bring this in a court case, which is what Eric Holder is doing, if they didn't think they had a pretty good case against these guys. But this does have a fairly creepy resonance with the 2002-2003 case for war against Iraq, which may be part of why the media is trying to raise all the questions and skepticism that it can.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, Max. Next time we call you, you have to watch some TV.

MAX FISHER:

Absolutely not. I refuse. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] Max Fisher is an associate editor at The Atlantic.