Mailbox: Semantics, Truths and Iran's Nuclear Program

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano at the agency headquarters in Vienna on Nov. 17, 2011. IAEA released the report on Iran's nuclear technology featured in Tom Gjelten's report. i

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano at the agency headquarters in Vienna on Nov. 17, 2011. IAEA released the report on Iran's nuclear technology featured in Tom Gjelten's report. Samuel Kubani/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Samuel Kubani/Getty Images
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano at the agency headquarters in Vienna on Nov. 17, 2011. IAEA released the report on Iran's nuclear technology featured in Tom Gjelten's report.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano at the agency headquarters in Vienna on Nov. 17, 2011. IAEA released the report on Iran's nuclear technology featured in Tom Gjelten's report.

Samuel Kubani/Getty Images

Last week, I disagreed with an email campaign requesting a correction to a report about Iran's nuclear program. Unlike the Huffington Post commentary that started the campaign, I found Tom Gjelten's report informative and careful. I felt the negative reaction had less to do with the journalism and more to do with the sensitivity of the subject. Most of us share an understandable fear of repeating in Iran the mistake that we made in going to war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that proved to be fictitious.

I knew my conclusion wouldn't go over well with some readers. NPR had received thousands of emails on the subject. I was right, and I'm thankful for the honest feedback. Below is a selection of some of the most thoughtful notes that add to the debate, as well as a criticism from a media watchdog advocacy group and a sophisticated analysis by an authoritative Washington think tank.

James Byrnes (Jiby) wrote:
I signed the form letter. Yes, it was the lazy thing to do, but it reflects my very strong sense that the drums of war are beating again and that NPR, in its more subtle and nuanced way, is participating. Your response suggests that it's different this time, that it's not like Iraq. I beg to differ. It is very much like Iraq. I find it impossible to believe that you don't get that. As for nuclear weapons, who wouldn't want one if they thought it would deter an attack by a foreign power (U.S. and/or Israel) and protect their sovereignty?

bruce walker (ponythecomic) wrote: 

So the objectionable line was "And remember, the ultimate goal for the US and its allies is to convince Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program." Your defense is that it doesn't say "a" or "the." Well, please explain to me how Iran can give up something they don't have. It sounds a lot like us telling the Iraqis to turn over their weapons of mass destruction, when in fact they had none to give up. In fact, their refusal to turn over those nonexistent weapons was our justification for invading them. So how does Iran "give up a nuclear weapons program" if it doesn't have one? Or will their refusal to give up their possibly nonexistent program be our justification for launching an attack on Iran?

Tim Myers (Muck_Smelling) wrote:
Wow. Internet people are alarmists, are they not? While vigilance is necessary, imagining an American or Israeli city going up in smoke is a little much at this point. Iran may be ruled by a particularly un-American crowd, but they aren't stupid. Also, being able to initiate a nuclear explosion does not grant carrying capacity. Yeah, I know, they'll just buy it from Russia or China, as if either one is eager to start a nuclear holocaust.

 I am a fan of NPR, and this response is one reason why. I know of few, if any, other news outlets so targeted for irrational conspiratorial gibbering, yet so willing to strive to maintain its integrity. Thanks.

D.S. Poorman (agreatkentuckywriter) wrote:
Wow, what an interesting issue as the confusion seems to stem from semantics in a way. That those disparate interpretations of pro-war vs. vigilant reporting depend upon the use of an indefinite article as opposed to a definite article is fascinating. (My inner-language-geek is very pleased... More! More!)

The media watchdog is FAIR, which leans left. They disagreed with my secondary supporting point of Gjelten's use of an indefinite article and posted this on their blog:

Does NPR really think that the best way to inform its listeners is to assume that when people hear a report about forcing Iran to "give up a nuclear weapons program," these listeners should fill in the blanks themselves so as to arrive at an entirely different meaning? That every time you hear something about Iran's "nuclear weapons program," that is really code for "the-nuclear-weapons-program-that-may not exist-since-there-is-no-evidence-that-it-exists"? That'd be an unusual burden to place on listeners.

For good measure, the ombud throws in another defense of the NPR report by pointing out that the "quote carefully refers to 'a' program—using the indefinite article—and not the definite 'its' or 'the' program." Again, NPR listeners: If you hear one of the reporters use the word "a," remember that could be a reference to something that doesn't exist. Got it?

As a contribution to the actual truth in the matter, here is a letter from Paul Brannan, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington D.C.-based think tank that tracks nuclear programs. The name is familiar to those who read about the deadly explosion at the Iran military base last November. ISIS released the commercial satellite images and an analysis of the damage.

Please find the link below for a new ISIS analysis. The absence of a final Iranian decision to make a nuclear weapon is not an accurate characterization of the international concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program. Iran has already made several key decisions over time that have better positioned it to quickly make nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. It is important to find a non-military solution to this issue, but there is indeed an urgency to finding this solution, and the urgency is not reduced by the absence of an Iranian decision to actually make a nuclear weapon.

http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/reality-check-shorter-and-shorter-timeframe-if-iran-decides-to-make-nuclear/

So there you have it. More food for thought for the weekend. We do read all your emails and comments, so please keep them coming.

Lori Grisham contributed to this post.


More on Iran from the Council on Foreign Relations:

A Threshold of War, or Diplomacy, with Iran?
Jan. 17, 2012
Ray Takeyh, Matthew H. Kroenig

Not Time to Attack Iran
Jan. 17, 2012
Colin H. Kahl


More from the Ombudsman:

Is NPR Fomenting A War With Iran? No.

The Wikipedia Blackout and the 'Scabs' at NPR

Santorum, Race and the Limits of Journalistic Fairness

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