NYT Public Editor: IAEA ‘Stops Short Of Making A Clear Conclusive Statement’ On Iran Nuke Program

Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane

When the Washington Post published a headline suggesting that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, the newspaper’s ombudsman responded to reader complaints, intervened, and warned his organization not to “play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.” Patrick Pexton did so because while evidence made available by authoritative sources like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests Iran’s nuclear program has “possible military dimensions,” no hard facts determine concretely that Iran reconstituted a full-scale nuclear weapons program after its suspension in 2003.

Now, the New York Times public editor chimed in on a Times story mirroring almost exactly (and citing) the Washington Post. The issue came to the fore on the heels of a January 5 Times story that described “a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran’s nuclear program has a military objective.” The story on the website was subsequently amended and this language removed, but the Times has not yet issued a correction. Public editor Arthur Brisbane, in a blog post today responding to reader objections, lays out several quoted phrases from the latest IAEA report that point towards possible weapons work, but then notes:

These words strongly suggest Iran is conducting a nuclear weapons program but it is noteworthy that nowhere does the IAEA come right out and say this. The agency stops short of making a clear conclusive statement.

But he needn’t only rely on the IAEA. The publicly available reports on the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the consensus opinion of U.S. intelligence agencies, indicate that the U.S. does not believe Iran has as yet undertaken the final decision to build a nuclear bomb.

Brisbane concluded that the Times’s earlier language was wrong:

I think the readers are correct on this. The Times hasn’t corrected the story but it should because this is a case of when a shorthand phrase doesn’t do justice to a nuanced set of facts. In this case, the distinction between the two is important because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli.

Indeed, when discussing war and peace, the stakes are high, and sloppy news coverage can, as we saw with Iraq, help push a nation to war. Brisbane is right to recognize this.

While Iran’s nuclear program is a serious issue that must be confronted, those such as GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is free to, should he like, ignore the facts. But it’s refreshing to know that the newsrooms of two of the nation’s leading papers regard scrupulous accuracy as an important part of their work, especially on these matters.