NPR Ombudsman On Iran Nuclear Program: ‘Shorthand References Are Often Dangerous’

NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos

A consensus seems to be developing on Iran’s nuclear program among those hired by major news organizations to keep an eye on their own reporting. Much of the discussion so far has focused on the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program, the most comprehensive publicly-available evidence on the issue. In the document, the IAEA expressed “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.” As a White House official said at the time, the IAEA report neither indicated that Iran has a nuclear weapons program nor that Tehran has made a decision to build a bomb.

A spate of ombudsmen and public editors of major news organizations have come out and bolstered the more accurate reading of the IAEA report — one that raises worries but does not conclude that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. First Washington Post ombud Patrick Pexton said so, urging extra caution because overstating evidence about the program can “play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.” He was followed by New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, who wrote that hewing closely to available facts matters “because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli.” Now, they’re both being joined by Edward Schumacher-Matos, National Public Radio’s ombudsman, and Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ombudsman Michael Getler.

Responding to reader complaints, some from a letter-writing campaign, Schumacher-Matos addressed an NPR story that referred to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” Discussing the IAEA report and the story, he wrote:

It was the closest the UN agency had come to saying that Iran was engaged in a nuclear weapons program, but still stopped short of saying that the country actually had one. The NPR story in wording and in tone accurately reflected this position.

Shorthand references are often dangerous in journalism, and listeners are correct to be on the alert for them. Repeated enough as fact—”Iran’s nuclear weapons program”—they take on a life of their own.

According to [NPR senior editor for national security Bruce] Auster, NPR’s policy is to refer in shorthand to Iran’s “nuclear program” and not “nuclear weapons program.” This is a correct formula, it seems to me, in part because Iran has proudly announced its nuclear program — while asserting it is for “peaceful” purposes, not for making weapons.

Though the NPR piece in question referred in one instance to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” Schumacher-Matos noted that, when taken in context and observing the entire story, the item described Iran’s nuclear program in the measured way described by NPR’s ombud-approved guidelines. Therefore, NPR issued no correction and the ombudsman didn’t call for one.

Separately, PBS faced criticism from the left-leaning media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) over one of its reports. Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote in response, “I think FAIR makes a good journalistic catch,” but denied FAIR’s contention that an edit in the piece was “dishonest.” In Gelter’s column, PBS NewsHour Foreign Affairs and Defense Editor Mike Mosettig wrote that it’s “clear from what we did air, that Iran is not at this moment putting a bomb together.”