There has been no shortage of government propaganda on all sides of the recent Iranian-British detainment crisis. British and American leaders have denounced Iran for intimidation, coercion, and arrogance, while Iranian leaders have made similar charges against the Bush and Blair governments. The dispute between the three countries only recently came to an end with the unconditional release of the “hostages” (as they were labeled by Western leaders) two weeks after their initial detainment. It is worth seriously reflecting on American media coverage of the British-Iranian standoff, at least if one is interested in understanding the nature of foreign policy news coverage of events in the Middle East.
In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky lay the foundations for a “propaganda model,” which postulates that American mass media reporting and editorializing strongly and uncritically privilege official perspectives. Official sources are treated with deference, and U.S. humanitarian rhetoric elaborating high-minded goals of American foreign policy is left largely unquestioned. The propaganda of U.S. allies and client regimes is accorded positive coverage (and certainly not referred to as propaganda), while dissidents and officially designated “enemies” of state are denigrated and denounced for coercive, terrorist, and/or aggressive behavior. Such claims against the American mass media are not meant to be taken lightly, as they should be made the subject of serious empirical testing and scrutiny. It so happens that the British-Iranian standoff represents an important opportunity to test the propaganda model in the real world.
On March 23, 2007, an Iranian gunship detained 7 marines and 8 sailors of the British Royal Navy near the Shatt al-Arab waterway off of the coast of Iran and Iraq. The British Navy personnel were inspecting vessels suspected of smuggling goods to and from Iraq, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard picked them up, claiming they had illegally entered Iranian national waters. American media reports soon referred to the situation as a major confrontation between Britain and Iran, as both governments placed blame squarely on the other, refusing to admit to any sort of wrongdoing.
American leaders, retaining a long history of antagonistic relations with Iran, predictably reacted by denouncing the detainment as a violation of international law and as an act of unprovoked aggression. Dan Barlett, White House Counselor, described “a long history from the Iranian government of bad actions it’s taken, further isolating themselves from the international community.” President Bush called the detainment “inexcusable,” claiming about the Iranian personnel: “They’re innocent, they did nothing wrong, and they were summarily plucked out of waters.”
Those hoping the American media would react more calmly than the U.S. and British governments, carefully weighing evidence in favor of a fair portrayal of the conflict, were in for a disappointment. As the propaganda model predicts, the American mass media are quick to demonize the actions of official “enemies,” while exonerating the U.S. or allied governments for any blame. In no uncertain terms, Max Hastings argued in the New York Times that “Iran represents a menace to the security of us all,” while the Washington Post editors railed against the “illegal attacks against a major Western power,” despite the fact that there was still uncertainty at the time over whether the British troops had been in Iranian waters or not. Of the four editorials run by the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times on the detainment incident, all condemned Iranian leaders for utilizing propaganda in pursuit of selfish motives. The Los Angeles Times editors labeled the sailors and marines “innocent” victims of Iranian “escalation.”
As with major editorials, American reporting on the conflict also tended to heavily promote official Western frames. Of the 49 major stories run by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post (found through a comprehensive search of the Lexis Nexis database), 54% of all sources quoted were British, as opposed to 30% that were Iranian. Western sources (including British and American) dominated media narratives even more thoroughly, comprising on average 70% of all sources quoted by the three papers. Such sources tended more often to promote antagonistic views of Iranian leaders, while presenting heroic and resolute images of U.S. and British leaders, under siege as a result of Iranian aggression and coercion. Of course, there is nothing inevitable about the fact that most sources were pro-Western in nature. There were, after all, reporters in Iran from Reuters and the Associated Press, amongst other reporting agencies and organizations operating in Tehran, who filed reports based upon the statements of Iranian leaders, military officials, media, dissidents, and specialists. If American media outlets wanted to pursue a more balanced approach to reporting the standoff, equally citing British and Iranian sources, they could have done so. Pursuing a more balanced approach, however, would require that American reporters and editors not pursue (as one of their major objectives) the uncritical transmission of official propaganda at the expense of alternative views.
Further evidence for claims of propagandistic news coverage is seen in the heavy reliance of the U.S. print media on American and British government officials, who were disproportionately quoted in reporting the British-Iranian standoff. Of all the British and American sources quoted in the major stories from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post on the incident, 80% of British and 73% of American sources were either from government or former government officials, or from military sources. Conversely, only 20% of British and 27% of American sources came from non-government sources such as other media, academics and specialists, activists and dissidents, or people on the street.
Aside from looking at source bias, there are other ways in which to test the propaganda model concerning American news coverage of the standoff. It so happens that the Iranian detainment of British personnel (in March 2007) was preceded by a detainment of Iranian government officials by the United States in Iraq (in January 2007). Both incidents are generally comparable in nature, although the U.S. detainment is arguably more extreme than the Iranian detainment, upon reflecting on the facts surrounding the cases.
On January 11, U.S. armed forces conducted a raid on an Iraqi foreign liaison office in the Kurdish city of Irbil, detaining 5 Iranian intelligence officials who were a part of Iran‘s Revolutionary Guard. While the 5 were not officially diplomats, they were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s al-Quds Brigade, on an official mission to Iraq, representing the Iranian government. The officials were in the process of being awarded diplomatic status at the time of the U.S. detainment. The officials did not illegally enter the country on a covert mission; quite the contrary, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari explained that they were “not [on] a clandestine operationâ€¦They were known by usâ€¦They operated with the approval of the regional government and with the knowledge of the Iraqi government. We were in the process of formalizing that liaison office into a consulate.”
U.S. leaders claimed the raid was necessary in order to send a message to Iranian leaders to stop “meddling” in Iraqi affairs. Iran had been accused by U.S. leaders of providing improvised explosive devices to Iraqi “insurgents” to be used against American troops. Iran had also been accused of providing money, weapons, and training to Iranian militias and “insurgents,” and in threatening U.S. attempts to “stabilize” a war-torn Iraq. Of course, Iraqi leaders explicitly rejected U.S. charges of Iranian “meddling” in Iraqi affairs, filing numerous protests of the U.S. detainment operation. Kurdish officials labeled the attack as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of international law. Iraq‘s Foreign Minister explained that the detainment of one of the Iranian officials (who had been an accredited diplomat) was “embarrassing for my country.”
The U.S. and Iranian detainments represent a rare opportunity to conduct a natural experiment into the ways in which comparable military operations between the United States and “enemy” regimes are portrayed in the American media. The reasons for expecting comparable coverage between the two abduction stories are numerous. As the Iranian detainment of British sailors was protested as illegal by British and American leaders, so too was the U.S. detainment of Iranian officials heavily protested by Iraqi and Iranian leaders as illegal. Both abductions represented major standoffs between powers attempting to exert their authority in the Middle East.
One could easily argue that the U.S. detainment of Iranian officials should have garnered even more attention than the Iranian detainment of British personnel. In the case of the U.S. detainment, the Iranian officials were in Iraq legally, with the express permission of the Iraqi government. Conversely, the legal status of the British and American occupation of Iraq has been widely considered illegal under international law at the highest levels of organizations like the United Nations (hence any operations of British or American troops could also be deemed illegal). On another level, the U.S. detainment of the Iranian officials was explicitly authorized at the highest levels of the American government (a clear case of official U.S. provocation against Iran), whereas it was unknown at the time of the reporting of the British-Iranian standoff whether the detainment of British Navy personnel was ordered at the highest levels of the Iranian government or not. Furthermore, Iran‘s detainment of British forces paled in comparison to the U.S. detainment of Iranians in terms of potential for inciting a hostile reaction. This is most clearly evident in that the Bush administration explicitly authorized the kidnapping or killing of Iranian government officials within Iraq, whereas the Iranian government made clear no such intentions in terms of its treatment of British detainees. The killing of foreign political officials has been expressly rejected as illegal under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the 1973 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, both of which the United States and Iran have ratified. The assassination or killing of any Iranian official invited into Iraq, then, represents a violation of the aforementioned international legal protections. Violation of such laws is a sufficient reason in-and-of-itself for major coverage of the U.S. abduction of Iranian officials.
Despite expectations of comparable coverage, the propaganda model is once again vindicated after one reviews the extreme imbalance of coverage of the two detainment incidents. In the two week period following the U.S. detainment of Iranian officials, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post each reported only three major stories on the incident, for a total of nine stories. Conversely, U.S. media coverage from these three newspapers totaled 49 major stories in the two week period following the Iranian detainment of British personnel.
In sum, the actions of an “enemy” regime were deemed far more salient and worthy of attention than the potentially embarrassing actions of the United States, which had been ardently condemned as a violation of international law and Iraqi national sovereignty. While reporting on the British-Iranian “standoff” was largely dominated by official narratives and frames, the U.S. detainment operations were portrayed as essential in promoting American self-defense, protection of American troops, and in opposition to Iranian aggression and terrorism. Such points were perhaps most blatantly evident in a Los Angeles Times editorial insisting that the “U.S. has every right [emphasis added] to insist on the arrest, prosecution, or expulsion from Iraq of Iranians, officials or not, who abet terrorism.” Deference to U.S. justifications was also evident in light of over-reliance on official statements, to the neglect of non-official ones.
In a final test of the propaganda model, one may examine the ways in the Iranian-British standoff was distinguished from the earlier U.S. detainment of Iranians in terms of discounting a possible cause and effect relationship. Did the U.S. abduction of Iranian officials incite Iranian leaders to respond against the U.S. or its allies in Iraq by abducting British military personnel? While a complete answer to this question seems elusive, the posing of the question should have been a priority if the American media were committed to understanding possible root causes of the British-Iranian standoff.
In the case of British media coverage, one can see that the question of a causal link between the two incidents was focused on more intensively. In a number of potentially explosive stories reported during the March standoff, the Independent of London reported that the original targets in the U.S.-Iranian detainment in January had been government officials with far higher credentials than the low-level officials who were actually detained in U.S. operations. The United States, the Independent reported, had attempted to capture “two senior Iranian officersâ€¦Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the Chief of Intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” The source of these charges came from Kurdish officials, who explained that Jafari and Frouzanda “were in Kurdistan on an official visit during which they met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).”
The significance of the failed capture of these officials was presented lucidly by Patrick Cockburn of the Independent: “The attempt by the US to seize the two-high ranking Iranian security officers openly meeting with Iraqi leaders is somewhat as if Iran had tried to kidnap the heads of the CIA and MI6 while they were on an official visit to a country neighboring Iran, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Iran believes that Mr Jafari and Mr Frouzanda were targeted by the Americans.”
In a number of reports, Cockburn suggested a direct cause-and-effect link between the original U.S. detainment and the following British-Iranian standoff (“The Botched U.S. Raid that Led to the Hostage Crisis,” and “American Raid and Arrests Set Scene for Capture of Marines”). He argued that “Better understanding of the seriousness of the US action in Irbil â€“ and the angry Iranian response to it â€“ should have led Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence to realize that Iran was likely to retaliate against American or British forces such as highly vulnerable Navy search parties in the Gulfâ€¦The attempt by the U.S. to seize the two high-ranking Iranian security officers” was “a far more serious and aggressive act. It was not carried out by proxies but by US forces directly.”
While the Independent’s reports were subsequently picked up by other mainstream British media sources, neither the story, nor its charges, appear to have received any headline coverage in the major American print media. There was no coherent or systematic effort in the American press to report charges that the two abductions were directly related. This decontextualization is best seen in a breakdown of the 19 stories (out of the total 49 major stories on the British-Iranian “standoff’) in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post that did mention the U.S. January abduction in their reporting. Out of those 19 stories, only 5 (all from the Washington Post) suggested that there might be a causal relationship between the U.S. and Iranian detainments; 14 stories either suggested no link or explicitly refuted suggestions of one. Only one story (from the Los Angeles Times) directly referenced the Independent story, although the reference was not in the headline, but buried deep within the article. Importantly, none of the 49 stories on the British-Iranian “standoff” discussed the charge that Iran‘s detainment of British personnel might have been motivated by the failed U.S. attempt to seize senior Iranian officials a few months earlier.
Whether it is in the over-reliance on British and American official sources over non-official ones, the systematic marginalization of comparable news coverage implicating both U.S. “enemies” and the U.S. in aggression or violation of international law, or the suppression of explosive charges against the United States for provoking a hostage crisis, the American press has revealed itself as extraordinarily subservient to the agendas of the American foreign policy elite. Official “enemies” are vilified (at times for good reason), while the questionable actions of American leaders are largely left unchallenged, as professional norms of “objectivity” do not allow for the challenge of official statements. As the propaganda model suggests, American reporters have faithfully taken to the role of an unofficial propaganda arm for the state, most blatantly during times when the United States rules in favor of allies and client regimes against powers deemed antagonistic to U.S. interests.
Anthony DiMaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois, Chicago in the areas of Political Science and Mass Media Studies.