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Selective Journalism: How Western Media Manipulates Information and Context to Conform to Official Narratives on Iran's

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One of the hallmarks of non-democratic nations is the absence of an independent press. In countries like China and North Korea, all media is state-run and strictly regulated. News stories reflect the will of the dominant political class and rarely if ever deviate from the official line.

In contrast to this despotism, we are told, Western democracies like those found in Europe and North America foster a free, independent press as the cornerstone of political participation. Without an engaged and well-informed electorate, the democratic experiment would inevitably fail. This association between democracy and free press has its roots in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers from John Stuart Mill to Thomas Jefferson and can be found plastered in high school civics textbooks throughout the US. Unfortunately, the idea that Western media is "independent" does not hold to scrutiny in the 21st century and the case of Iran's nuclear enrichment program is a perfect example of this.

A BBC article dated February 19, 2012, titled "Iran "May Boost Nuclear Program', Diplomat Warns" discusses the "expansion" of Iran's nuclear enrichment program. The article expresses concern about the anticipated instillation of centrifuges at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Facility outside of the city of Qom. The report quotes anonymous diplomats saying the "facility now contains the electrical circuitry, piping and supporting equipment required for the new centrifuges." Although, the diplomats add that the centrifuges have not been fitted yet and there is no indication as to when they might become operational. The article goes on to assert, "this is another warning that Iran may be stepping up its controversial nuclear work."

Unmentioned in all of this is the fact that Iran voluntarily disclosed the existence of the Fordow site to the IAEA in 2009 and has since allowed inspectors full access to the site. According to the latest IAEA report on Iran issued November 18, 2011 , "the Agency continues to verify that FFEP [Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant] is being constructed according to the latest DIQ provided by Iran." In other words, Iran has been completely forthcoming and transparent about details related to the construction and purpose of the Fordow plant. The author of the BBC article apparently doesn't find any of this information relevant or worthy of inclusion.

The author does, however, find room to warn that the new facility, once it becomes operational, could allow Iran to "speed up the production of enriched uranium -- required for both power generation and nuclear weapons." While ominous and potentially fear inducing, this line fails to account for the complexities and nuances of uranium enrichment. All Iranian enrichment sites, including Fordow, are designed to enrich uranium up to 20%, the level required to fuel Tehran's small medical research reactor , which produces isotopes for use in cancer treatment. The latest IAEA inspection of the Natanz enrichment plant confirms that Iran is enriching uranium to low levels for use in medical research: "In the production area, Iran first began feeding low enriched UF6 into Cascade 1 on 9 February 2010, for the stated purpose of producing UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 for use in the manufacture of fuel for he Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)." In contrast, nuclear weapons require uranium enriched to levels of 95%. While Iran could potentially enrich uranium to this level in the future, its centrifuges are not currently calibrated to do so. Again, the author abandons complexity and context in favor of cheap fear mongering.

The article frames this "revelation" about Iran's increased enrichment capacity within the larger context of the rising tensions between Iran and the West. The author provides a textual montage (in bullet point form) of Iran's latest provocations and Western official's warnings. The first of these is arguably the most revealing: "On Saturday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Iran's nuclear ambitions could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region -- where at present the only country believed to possess such weapons is Israel."

That the glaring irony of this sentence could escape notice by anyone speaks to the insidious profusion of the imperial mindset. Yes, Israel possesses a stockpile of hundreds of nuclear weapons and refuses to sign on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or allow international inspectors access to its weapons sites, but this could in no way trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. On the other hand, Iran's hypothetical pursuit of a nuclear weapon, in no way spurred by Israel's arsenal, could have seriously destabilizing consequences for the region. This is but one example among many of Western media's consistent refusal to include Israel's nuclear weapons in the current debate over Iran's enrichment activities.

Another bullet point cites the alleged Iranian attempts to assassinate Israeli diplomats abroad in India, Georgia and Thailand: "Israel earlier accused Iran of masterminding attacks on its embassies in India, Thailand and Georgia -- an accusation denied by Iran." Of course, there is no mention of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists on Iranian soil by members of the opposition exile group, Mujahidin e-Khalq, with the training and support of Israeli Mossad . Interestingly, MEK is a terrorist organization according to the US, so the recent revelations of Israeli involvement with MEK point to Israel as a state sponsor of terrorism under the current US definition. Again, these are all externalities and do not warrant mention in the BBC article. That Iran's alleged bellicosity may be a response to ongoing US/Israeli aggression is never even considered.

Of course, this is but one example among many of Western media's selective use of information and dearth of context to ensure that coverage of Iran's enrichment activities toes the party line. One could literally pull any article on this topic from virtually any mainstream Western media outlet and find the same superficial, biased coverage. Unlike what you might find reading Xinhua or the People's Daily, those official organs of the Chinese Communist Party, Western media outlets do not print outright falsehoods (although sometimes they do). Rather, they employ a much more sophisticated method of presenting selective information and ignoring or avoiding nuance, complexity and historical/political context to guarantee adherence to official doctrine.

This is far from the free and independent press of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson. Although, it is much more difficult to determine whether this betrayal represents a dire threat to modern democracy or, as I suspect, stems from the severe erosion of democracy over the past several decades as a result of the increasing financialization and corporate domination of the economy, including media. Either way, journalism is degraded and citizens lose out.


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I am a graduate student of journalism at UNL interested in international affairs, politics, economics, social justice issues and education.
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