Contempt for International Law: A Survey of New York Times and Washington Post Editorials on Iran

March 16, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

United Nations

By Kevin Young:

One crucial measure of press coverage of global affairs is the extent to which media outlets consider the international legal framework embodied in agreements like the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (“Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” or NPT). This article tests the attention to international law in recent editorials about Iran in two of the United States’ leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post. Although the papers’ editors routinely accuse the Iranian government of “contempt for international law” [1], their own record reveals a systematic disdain for the international legal principles and treaty obligations of which the US and Israeli governments are in violation.

The editorial boards not only fail to subject US and Israeli actions to legal scrutiny, they also directly promote the violation of international law in various ways: through their advocacy of the use of military threats, collective punishment, and selective assassinations and bombings; through the implication that unprovoked US military invasion in Iran would be justified if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon; and through their neglect of US and Israeli obligations regarding nuclear disarmament. The editors at the Times and Post have stopped short of advocating immediate US military intervention in Iran, in fact arguing against such an option. But the Obama approach of continuous threats, “crippling sanctions,” and tacit support for Israeli terror—all explicitly or implicitly endorsed by the papers’ editors—is likewise illegal under multiple provisions of international and US national law.

The specific provisions are hardly obscure. The Nuremberg Tribunal that prosecuted the Nazis after World War II declared non-defensive military intervention to be “the supreme international crime” [2]. The threat of force is also forbidden, meaning that President Obama’s frequent statement that “all options are on the table” is criminal. The central document of international law, the United Nations Charter adopted in 1945, unequivocally prohibits “the threat or use of force” in international relations unless a nation is attacked or unless the UN Security Council authorizes the use of force. UN Security Council Resolution 1887 of September 2009 has reaffirmed this prohibition. These principles are also part of United States law, both under Article 6 of the Constitution (stipulating that treaties to which the United States is a signatory become “the supreme Law of the Land”) and under the US Code of Federal Regulations, which defines “international terrorism” as actions that “appear to be intended to i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population, ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, [and/or] iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” [3]. Such a definition arguably prohibits the “coercion” of the Iranian government via economic sanctions, as well. The legality of economic sanctions is also challenged by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the collective punishment of civilian populations [4].

Media references to Iranian leaders’ “contempt for international law” have some basis in truth, but their emphasis is misplaced. The Iranian regime has been in violation of UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it cease uranium enrichment altogether, and it may be in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (if it is pursuing nuclear weapons) [5]. But the Iranian government’s military intentions are widely recognized by experts, including US officials, to be focused on the development of deterrents to outside military attack rather than the development of offensive capabilities [6]. While Iran has not attacked another country in over two centuries, the US and Israeli governments both have long records of non-defensive military intervention in the region. As noted below, Arab public opinion also overwhelmingly supports Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses and views the United States and Israel as far greater threats to regional peace. The contempt for international law shown by the US and Israeli governments and prominent intellectuals like the Times and Post editors thus appears to be far more dangerous and worrisome at the present time.

International Law and Recent Editorials

The sample below covers the past two years. It begins on March 16, 2010, the day that General David Petraeus told the US Senate that “[t]he Iranian regime is the primary state-level threat to stability” in the Middle East and Central Asia, and that “the Iranian regime is assessed by many to be continuing its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability” [7]. This starting point is somewhat arbitrary given that discussion of Iran’s nuclear program and alleged threat to regional security has been fairly consistent over the entire past decade (and in various forms, back to 1979). But talk of a US and/or Israeli war against Iran has escalated in the past several years, making the last two years an appropriate time frame for the sample.

During these two years the Times featured eighteen editorials of which a central focus was Iran’s nuclear program, an average of about one every six weeks. The Washington Post featured twenty-two such editorials, or about one every five weeks. The many additional editorials that made only passing reference to Iran’s nuclear program, and the numerous op-eds and opinion columns devoted to the issue, are not included in these tallies. Figure 1 summarizes the results.

Figure 1: New York Times and Washington Post Editorials on Iran’s Nuclear Program
March 16, 2010, through March 15, 2012

New York Times

(18 total)

Washington Post

(22 total)

Considered International Law Implications of US/Israeli Actions and Threats



Considered Effects of Sanctions on Iranian People



Considered Iranian Civilians’ Views on Sanctions



Recognized Iran’s Right to Pursue Civilian Nuclear Program



Mentioned Israel’s Nuclear Weapons



Supported US/UN Sanctions



Said or Implied That Iran Is Seeking Nuclear Weapons



aIncludes one that considered the effects, but positively—hoping that sanctions would “heighten popular anger against the regime” (“Confused on Iran,” WP, April 20, 2010, A14).

bAmbiguous case—the editorial supported offering Iran a set of “inducements” including “nuclear energy technology” (“President Obama and Iran,” NYT, August 7, 2010, A16).

Editorials in both papers go beyond simply ignoring the law, in fact frequently applauding President Obama’s statements that “all options are on the table,” which, as noted, violate international and US national law [8]. Sometimes the editorial boards, particularly at the Post, have criticized the Obama administration for not being aggressive enough with its threats. A representative editorial from April 2010 praised the “all-options-on-the-table” stance but complained that “senior officials regularly talk down the military option in public—thereby undermining its utility as an instrument of intimidation” [9]. Both papers have also seemed to endorse Israeli terrorist tactics of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. As a January 2012 Times editorial argued, “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyberattacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing the program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” It is worth pondering what the editors’ response would be if the Iranian government were assassinating US or Israeli scientists for their role in developing their own countries’ nuclear arsenals, or if there would even be an “Iran” left to speak of following the furious Western bombing campaign that would likely ensue [10].

The vast majority of the editorials surveyed (34 of 40) included statements in support of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States, the UN Security Council, the European Union, and a number of other countries. Most of the editorials that did not clearly support the sanctions regime, particularly from the Post, appeared to argue that sanctions would be ineffective and that other actions such as aggressive support for Iranian opposition actors would be necessary. Late last year the Post editors complained about the Obama “administration’s slowness to embrace crippling sanctions” [11]. Both papers, but the Post more explicitly, have endorsed the strategy of increasing civilian suffering as a way of undermining the Iranian government’s legitimacy. The Post has been a forceful advocate of harsher sanctions for this reason, arguing in 2010 that “the administration has so far shrunk from supporting sanctions, such as a gasoline embargo, that might heighten popular anger against the regime” [12]. Last July the Post editors reported with satisfaction that Iran “is having difficulty arranging imports, including food,” as a result of the sanctions, but offered no reflection on the possible legal implications of such a strategy, much less its prohibition under the Fourth Geneva Convention [13].

Many of the editorials also explicitly accused the Iranian regime of violating international law. As noted above, Iran has indeed violated UN Security Council resolutions dating back to 2006 calling upon it to cease all uranium enrichment, though the legal basis for that demand is questionable. But most of the editorials (34 of 40) go a step further and explicitly or implicitly accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons in violation of its obligations as a “non-nuclear-state” signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This claim is now standard in US press coverage, as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting has documented, but no one outside the Iranian government knows for sure if it is true, and there is in fact more evidence to refute it than to support it. An illustrative example of how the papers’ editors have dealt with the conflicting evidence came in a November 2011 Post editorial on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” As the editorial noted, this argument contradicted repeated assessments by US intelligence and administration officials, who continue to agree that Iran is not yet building a nuclear bomb [14]. Yet the Post editors immediately ascribed more credibility to the IAEA report, which they said “ought to end serious debate about whether Tehran’s program is for peaceful purposes,” than to “the U.S. intelligence community’s controversial conclusion” that weapons production ceased in 2003. They also went further than the IAEA report itself by asserting that “Iran’s nuclear program has an explicit military dimension” [15]. (Even if Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, such action does not justify war or threats of war—see below and note 5.)

While they frequently accused the Iranian regime of violating international law, the editorials uniformly ignored US and Israeli crimes under international law. In addition to the serious violations cited above, one notable violation involves the refusal to work toward implementing UN General Assembly Resolution 3263 (1974) and Security Council Resolution 687 (1991), which call for the creation of a “nuclear-weapons-free zone” in the Middle East. None of the editorials mentioned Israel’s large arsenal of nuclear weapons, the US role in enabling the growth of that arsenal, or the fact that Israel refuses to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

These patterns adhere to past precedent. In their landmark 2004 critique of how the New York Times covers US foreign policy, Howard Friel and Richard Falk found that the Times completely ignored law-based objections to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq: “no space was accorded to the broad array of international law and world-order arguments opposing the war,” and “the only references to US-based international law opinion in the Times news pages were to a few unrepresentative specialists, with close past and present ties to the government, who supported the war.” Conversely, observed Friel and Falk, “Editorials and columnists display no reluctance to invoke international law in support of their condemnation of [hostile acts] by enemies of the United States” [16].

Falk, a respected expert in international law with much experience in the Middle East, has been appalled by the state of recent debate over Iran. He observes that in contrast to the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2002-03, “[t]here is not even a lawyerlike attempt to argue that Bush’s discredited doctrine of preemptive war applies to Iran, there is instead a presumed total irrelevance of international law to the policy debate.” Or, more precisely, international law is relevant only when it serves the interests of the US and Israeli governments. The formula is simple and consistent: “Accountability for the weak and vulnerable, discretion for the strong and mighty” [17].

Invisible Civilians

Like international law, Iranian civilians are virtually absent from Times and Post editorials unless reference to them supports the US-Israeli agenda. In light of the devastating impact that UN sanctions had on Iraqi civilians from 1990 to 2003—hundreds of thousands killed by a policy deemed “genocidal” by UN official Denis Halliday, and “worth it” by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—one might expect respectable news outlets to consider the possible impact of foreign sanctions on the Iranian population [18]. But 37 of the 40 editorials surveyed gave no explicit acknowledgment of the possibility of civilian suffering, and one of the three that did complained that the sanctions were not inflicting enough suffering on civilians [19]. Another acknowledged that “restrict[ing] gasoline sales to Iran…could hurt ordinary Iranians,” but the problem for the editors was that this dynamic could “rally support for the government” and “shift international anger away from Tehran and toward Washington,” thereby jeopardizing the US agenda in the region [20]. Only a single editorial even came close to a principled critique of the sanctions, lamenting that “inflicting distress was not the end goal of this policy” (while, of course, continuing to support the sanctions) [21].

Also absent are the voices of Iranian civilians who oppose Western sanctions. These voices include “Green Movement” opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has consistently spoken out against sanctions for their negative impact on the Iranian population and because they will do little to weaken the government’s hold on the country [22]. The voices also include the courageous Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, which bitterly condemns both the Iranian regime and “all forms of US intervention,” including so-called “targeted” sanctions. In a recent statement the group said that sanctions “further immiserate the very people they claim to be helping,” and noted that

No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—have called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, leaders from virtually all of these groups have vocally opposed the implementation of sanctions precisely because they have witnessed the Iranian state grow stronger, and the wellbeing of ordinary Iranians suffer, as a result. [23]

This crucial fact was omitted from all of the editorials surveyed, none of which even bothered to consider the position of the Iranian population on sanctions. In fact, the entire New York Times print edition has never mentioned Mousavi’s opposition to sanctions; the Post has done so once, in 2009. In one particularly ironic 2009 editorial, subtitled “What Should the United States Do to Help the Green Movement?,” the Post explicitly advocated more severe sanctions against Iran. No major world publication has reported the Raha Collective’s statement [24].

The invisibility of Iranian civilians in discussions of sanctions contrasts sharply with US papers’ effusive sympathy for civilian suffering when inflicted by the Iranian regime itself [25]. Iranian civilians have a remarkable superpower, evident in their tendency to appear and disappear almost instantaneously in accordance with the needs of US policymakers.

The Bounds of the Expressible

The systematic neglect of international law and civilian voices reflects the broader tendency of US mass media to restrict “debate” to the range of positions expressed by US policymakers and corporate elites. The current media debate over Iran has featured dissenting views and disagreements, but only within a shared framework of assumptions and goals. Media reports and opinion pieces have reflected a very narrow segment of the political spectrum, remaining within what Noam Chomsky has called “the bounds of the expressible” [26].

One measure of the limits of the debate is evident in warnings against a military attack on Iran. As noted above, no Times or Post editorial has yet advocated a US or Israeli military strike in the near future (though some op-ed columns have [27]). On the contrary, the editors at both papers have consistently argued “that an attack would be a disaster” and bring “high costs and limited returns” [28]. But why, and for whom? Certainly not for the Iranian people or the international legal order. Instead, the editors’ opposition to such a strike derives entirely from pragmatic considerations: military invasion “is not yet necessary or wise” because it would fail to stop uranium enrichment and “would tear apart the international coalition” united behind Washington and “undermine an increasingly tough sanctions regime” [29]. The legal or moral implications of a military strike—the fact that it would violate the central tenet of international law and the likelihood of harm to civilians—are completely absent from all of the editorials surveyed above. Similarly, the only concern about the sanctions against Iran is the possible negative fallout for the United States and Israel, as noted above [30].

The omission of legal or moral considerations reflects a deep-seated sense of US entitlement in the world; the US right to intervene in other countries is rarely questioned. For example, recent editorials on Iraq have argued that “Mr. Obama needs to reaffirm a commitment to Iraq’s sovereignty to discourage Iran and other meddlers” [31]. In other words, when the United States government launches an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and devastating the economy, it constitutes an effort to achieve stability and “sovereignty” for the invade country (even if the noble effort falls short). But when Iran supports factions in Iraq, or pursues “efforts to drive the United States out of the Middle East,” it is destabilizing the region through its “meddling” [32]. Moreover, the United States is always dragged into conflict by others: the Post hopes that a military assault on Iran will not be “forced on the United States,” and that Obama will not be “forced into more conflicts like those of the past decade.” The Iranian government “is threatening to trigger yet another war in the Middle East” [33].

The bounds of the expressible also exclude the opinions of Middle Eastern populations. Polls conducted by Western organizations in the past two years have found that Arabs see “U.S. interference in the Arab world” and the US-Israeli occupation of Palestine as the greatest threats to Middle Eastern peace. Less than ten percent of Arabs approve of Obama administration policies, and most even view the Iranian regime more favorably than the US one. Most (77 percent) think that “Iran has the right to its nuclear program,” and 57 percent even say that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would make the region safer [34]. These views are nowhere apparent in the editorials surveyed, and a more comprehensive survey of all mainstream news coverage would likely yield a similar result. In fact, the editorials have sometimes implied that Arab populations would favor an attack on Iran; the Post has contended that “most of the Arab states surrounding Iran might welcome a U.S. attack,” a statement which conflates Arab peoples with their despotic leaders [35].

Not one of the 40 editorials surveyed above considered Iran’s incentive to seek nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran would be contrary to the interests of world peace—just as all nuclear-armed states are—but Iran’s government certainly has a motivation to seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent given US and Israeli belligerence. Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian, noted in 2004 that “the world has witnessed how the United States attacked Iraq for, as it turned out, no reason at all. Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy” [36]. Current threats provide additional incentive. As Richard Falk wrote recently,

If ever there was an argument for the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the diplomacy of Israel and the West has fashioned it in a strong form. After all Iran is being constantly threatened with attack by states for more powerful than itself, and although it possesses retaliatory capacity, it is vulnerable to devastating attacks from sea, air, and land. Can we imagine a better set of conditions for acquiring nuclear weapons so as to deter an attack? [37]

Of course, as mentioned above, there is still no definitive evidence that the Iranian government is seeking nuclear weapons, and US intelligence reports indicate that it stopped doing so in 2003. But the incentive exists, and is predictably intensified by US-Israeli threats.

Since the parameters of debate do not permit discussion of why the Iranian government might logically want to obtain nuclear weapons as part of a deterrent strategy, there is a constant assumption that a US or Israeli invasion would be justified if Iran were to obtain such weapons. Press coverage routinely implies that a nuclear-armed Iran would constitute what international legal scholars call a casus belli, or reason for war, since it would pose an “existential threat” to Israel and would directly threaten the United States and Europe as well. The unquestioned assumption is that an Iranian government in possession of a few nuclear bombs would launch an attack on nations like the United States and Israel that have far larger nuclear arsenals and far superior military strength. Even many extreme-right Israeli intelligence officials regard this scenario as laughable, noting that Iranian leaders are not likely to invite national annihilation [38]. Any attack on Iran for its mere possession of a nuclear weapon would still be unprovoked and illegal under international law unless specially authorized by the Security Council. As William Blum wrote in 2007, “Of the many lies surrounding the invasion of Iraq, the biggest one of all is that if, in fact, Saddam Hussein had those weapons of mass destruction the invasion would have been justified” [39]. The same lie is being propagated about Iran.

The real threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is that it would deprive the United States, Israel, and European powers of the option of invading Iran at some later point and challenge US-Israeli impunity in the broader Middle East. Even so, another nuclear-armed country is not a desirable prospect. Yet the only true solution to the problem, a nuclear-free Middle East and eventually a nuclear-free world, lies beyond the bounds of the expressible.


A survey of the 40 most recent New York Times and Washington Post editorials on Iran’s nuclear program reveals a systematic disdain for international law on the part of the papers’ editors, and also suggests that the editors tend to ignore Iranian popular opinion and civilian suffering when the latter do not serve Washington’s agenda. These patterns are consistent even in editorials opposing a US or Israeli attack on Iran. A number of additional assumptions are also common in the editorials, including the tendencies to avoid casting the United States as a “foreign” presence in the Middle East, to imply that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would constitute a reason for war, and to neglect or distort Arab public opinion on the question of Iran. A number of previous analyses have called attention to additional US press distortions on Iran, documenting how US press outlets have exaggerated the threat posed by the Iranian government, relied uncritically on government sources for much of their information, and generally supported an aggressive US policy toward Iran [40].

Unfortunately US corporate news media, including relatively liberal outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, have changed little after a decade of the disastrous and criminal US wars that they helped enable. Indeed, they seem at least as contemptuous of international law and opinion, and at least as committed to US domination and impunity, as they were a decade ago.


[1] “Iran and the Strait,” New York Times (hereafter NYT), December 30, 2011, A22.

[2] UN Dept. of Public Information, “Crimes within the Court’s Jurisdiction,” May 1998. The International Court of Justice reaffirmed the prohibition of non-defensive military force in Nicaragua v. United States of America (June 27, 1986), which found the US government guilty of international aggression.

[3] 18 U.S.C. Section 2331.

[4] News reports and official statements have confirmed US intentions. As the Post reported last July, sanctions have left Iran “scrambling to find alternative ways to import food and other critical supplies. Now Iranian officials are warning of economic pain in the months ahead—precisely the effect that U.S. officials were hoping for” (Thomas Erdbrink and Joby Warrick, “Iranian Shipping Hit by Sanctions,” Washington Post (hereafter WP), July 11, 2011, A1).

[5] As a “non-nuclear-state” signatory to the NPT Iran is prohibited from seeking nuclear weapons. However, an overlooked provision of the NPT means that the Iranian government may not be in violation of the treaty even if it is seeking nuclear weapons. As international law expert Richard Falk notes, Article X of the NPT “allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months’ notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events…have jeopardized its supreme national interests’…Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons.” In Iran’s case, it is certainly plausible to argue that foreign threats justify abandonment of the non-proliferation pledge in the name of “security requirements.” See Falk, “Stop Warmongering in the Middle East” (blog post), January 20, 2012.

[6] See, for example, the testimony by Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, who says that “Iran’s military strategy is designed to defend against external threats, particularly from the United States and Israel” (Statement before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 14, 2010). See also Noam Chomsky, “The Iranian Threat,” ZNet, June 28, 2010; Noam Chomsky, “What Are Iran’s Intentions?” In These Times (online version), March 2, 2012.

[7] Statement of General David H. Petraeus before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Posture of U.S. Central Command, March 16, 2010, pp. 30, 10. The latter claim contradicts the consensus from the US intelligence community, as noted below.

[8] “Iran, Israel and the United States,” NYT, March 6, 2012, A26.

[9] “Confused on Iran,” WP, April 20, 2010, A14. See also “Mr. Gates on Iran,” WP, November 19, 2010, A22.

[10] “Dangerous Tension with Iran,” NYT, January 13, 2012, A22; cf. “Running out of Time,” WP, November 10, 2011, A24. See also Richard Falk’s reflections in “Stop Warmongering in the Middle East.”

[11] “Half-Measures on Iran,” WP, November 23, 2011, A18.

[12] “Confused on Iran.”

[13] “Iran, Undeterred,” WP, July 22, 2011 (emphasis added).

[14] See, most recently, James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Spies See No Iran Moves to Build Bomb,” NYT, February 25, 2012, A1.

[15] “Running out of Time” (emphasis added).

[16] Friel and Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (London: Verso, 2004), 4-5. Friel and Falk’s follow-up book draws similar conclusions about coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict: Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (London: Verso, 2007).

[17] Falk, “Criminalizing Diplomacy: Fanning the Flames of the Iran War Option” (blog post), November 11, 2011; see also Falk’s “Stop Warmongering in the Middle East.”

[18] Halliday interviewed in Nyier Abdou, “Scylla and Charybdis,” Al-Ahram Weekly no. 618 (December 26, 2002-January 1, 2003); Albright interviewed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes on May 12, 1996. The overall death toll due to sanctions is unknown, and estimates vary from several hundred thousand to 1.7 million. The commonly-cited (outside mainstream debate) figure to which Albright was responding was 500,000 children killed.
[19] “Confused on Iran.”

[20] “Congress, Sanctions and Iran,” NYT, July 3, 2010, A18. The tendency to lament civilian suffering primarily as a PR setback has been strikingly evident in US news coverage of last weekend’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier: see “After Afghan Massacre, War Gets Victim Status: Media Treat Killings as PR Problem for Occupation,” FAIR Media Advisory, March 12, 2012.

[21] “Tehran Isn’t Talking,” WP, January 25, 2011, A18.

[22] “Sanctions Will Hurt Ordinary Iranians, Says Mousavi,” Daily Telegraph, May 24, 2010, 18.

[23] Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, “Solidarity and Its Discontents,”, February 19, 2012.

[24] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iranian Opposition Warns against Stricter Sanctions,” Post, October 1, 2009, A11 (the next day a short article in the Times’ online version reported Mousavi’s comments: Nazila Fathi, “Iranian Opposition Leader Warns Against Sanctions,” October 2, 2009); “Iran’s Turning Point,” Post, December 29, 2009, A14. Based on LexisNexis database searches conducted March 14, 2012.

[25] On Times and Post coverage of the 2009 protests and Iranian government repression, see my “Honduras, Iran, and the Propaganda Model,” ZNet, July 5, 2010.

[26] Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End Press, 1989), chapter 3. Other media studies scholars have made a similar argument, sometimes referred to as the “indexing model” of media coverage. See W. Lance Bennett, “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,” Journal of Communication 40, no. 2 (1990): 103-125; Jonathan Mermin, Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[27] E.g., Amos Yadlin, “Israel’s Last Chance to Strike Iran,” NYT, March 1, 2012, A31.

[28] “Iran, Sanctions and the Memo,” NYT, April 20, 2010, A20; “Iran, Israel and the United States.” See also “Mr. Gates on Iran.”

[29] “The U.S.-Israeli Trust Gap,” Washington Post, February 15, 2012, A16; “Iran, Israel and the United States.”

[30] For more analysis see Peter Hart, “The Iran Non-Debate, Continued…” FAIR blog, March 6, 2012; Falk, “Stop Warmongering in the Middle East.”

[31] “Leaving Iraq,” NYT, August 28, 2010, A18.

[32] “Iran, Undeterred.” On Iran’s “meddling” see also “In Iraq, a Long Engagement,” WP, August 31, 2010, A16.

[33] “Half-Measures on Iran”; “Mr. Obama’s Defense Cuts,” WP, April 21, 2011, A16; “Running Out of Time.”

[34] Zogby International and the Arab American Institute, Arab Attitudes: 2011; Shibley Telhami, 2010 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey (University of Maryland/Brookings Institution/Zogby International, August 2010), slides 43, 48. The polls covered six Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. For more discussion see my post “The ‘Failure’ of the Iraqi Government: US Opposition to Arab Democracy, in Iraq and Beyond,” Z blog, November 3, 2011.

[35] “The Right Response to Wikileaks,” WP, November 30, 2010, A20.

[36] “Sharon on the Warpath: Is Israel Planning to Attack Iran?” International Herald Tribune, August 21-22, 2004, quoted in Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 73.

[37] Falk, “Criminalizing Diplomacy.”

[38] UPI, “Mossad Chief Says Nuclear Iran No Threat,” December 29, 2011.

[39] Blum, “Cuba and Original Sin,”, November 6, 2007. On the New York Times’ repetition of this assumption in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion see Friel and Falk, The Record of the Paper, 18.

[40] See the Iran section of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting’s website and Anthony DiMaggio, When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 133-64.


Readers Comments (2)

  1. marieburns says:

    Thanks for this excellent & important analysis. However, you undermine the seriousness of your argument by describing the Washington Post editorial board as “liberal.” It is not.

    The editorial board, led by happy warrior Fred Hiatt, favors drastic deficit reduction measures, “entitlement reform,” & some form of privatized Social Security, opposes more stimulus spending, chided President Obama for not green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline, & of course co-captained the Iraq Invasion Cheerleading Squad.

    As liberal economist Dean Baker wrote, “… the Post has a near perfect track record of being completely wrong on the economy at every turn.”

    And this Media Matters post is instructive.

    Liberals call the Post “Fox on 15th” (for it’s street address) for good reason.


  2. Kevin.Young says:


    The characterization of the editorial board as “liberal” is of course relative, as such words always are. In the context of current-day US corporate media and mainstream political discourse, which has moved further right in recent decades on many issues, the Washington Post remains relatively liberal: it generally supports civil rights like gay marriage, opposes outright assaults on women’s health, etc. Yes, it is generally more hawkish and more reactionary than the New York Times, but the difference is one of degree, and not very large. All of the critiques you raise are valid, but the fact remains that the Post represents a relatively liberal segment of the media elite. Your critiques do more to demonstrate that “liberals” and “conservatives” agree on many fundamentals than to refute my characterization of the Post as liberal. For instance, liberal media elites might support abortion and gay rights, but be just as hawkish on foreign policy and just as regressive in their favored fiscal policy as many Republicans.

    You seem to be clinging to a positive preconception of the word “liberal,” whereas in my view the word itself is rendered almost meaningless by conventional usage and valuable only as an indicator of one’s relative position on the spectrum. And there are obviously huge differences among what many refer to as the “liberal” camp—Dean Baker, for instance, is far to the left of both the Times and Post. Labels like liberal and conservative obscure as much as they clarify.


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