Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Post #34 - Truth Matters

May God bless you with discomfort at: easy answers, half-truths... (Benedictine benediction)

From my training in philosophy at The College of William & Mary and the Institute of European Studies in Vienna (and earlier training at the knees of my own parents), I am persnickety about truth, even when it is inconvenient. I will take quite a bit of space to discuss what may seem like rather minor points to some. But, if you feel, as I do, that "for the want of a nail" certain important wars can be lost, bear with me...they can also be started with no more than a nail or two.

The press, politicians and pundits are quite fond of saying “President Ahmadinezhad called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth.” With slight variations, this has been repeated over and over again, so that virtually everyone in the West believes that the Iranian politician did, in fact, say that.

There is one problem, though: he didn't actually say it. Not only did he not say it, but many of those who repeat the quote to such effect know that he didn't say it. A more faithful rendering into English of what he said on the occasion in question would be: “Our dear Imam [Khomeini] offered that the regime occupying Jerusalem should pass from the pages of history.” (Here is an English-alphabet transliteration: “Imam-e-aziz-e maa farmoudand keh een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad as safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.” of the Persian: امام عزيز ما فرمودند كه اين رژيم اشغالگر قدس بايد از صفحه روزگار محو شود). I would say that "regime change" is a more reasonable take-away than genocide. [For a comprehensive explanation of this, see:
http://www. mohammadmossadegh.com/news/ rumor-of-the-century/]

The story about the story is what is especially instructive. On one side, you have a series of individuals working hard to set the record straight. University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East (who, by the way, personally "despises everything Ahmadinezhad stands for") refuted the quotation publicly in the interest of simple truth and accuracy. Veteran journalist Jonathan Steele wrote about the error in The Guardian. Various non-profits, activists and bloggers took up the cry as well. The Middle East Research Institute, not known for giving Islamic sources the benefit of any doubt, used the more accurate and far more innocuous translation. The false quote was even officially condemned by all fifteen members of the United Nations Security Council, in October of 2005, when it had been cited by Israel to support a call for Iran's expulsion from the U.N.

But arrayed against them were the heavy hitters of the global media: Reuters, the Associated Press and the venerable BBC, in hundreds of separate stories over the past two years. Reuters, which calls itself "the largest international multi-media news agency," persists in standing by its story despite numerous complaints from its readers, foreign policy experts and press professionals regarding the faulty provenance of the quotation. They at first attributed the quote to an Iranian source, but later claimed it as their own translation.

The Associated Press, reputedly "the largest and oldest news organization in the world," managed to shift (by May 2007, nearly two years after the story broke) from using "Israel must be wiped off the map," to "The Zionist regime should be wiped off the map." This language is still partly incorrect, but significantly different in its implications. It has even "spun" the critiques by asserting that "his supporters have since argued Ahmadinezhad's words were mistranslated." Well aware of the many inputs from Western-based experts who carry no brief for the Iranian president, AP chose to color the story, rather than come clean themselves.

The BBC alone managed a reversal of sorts, although it has given several different versions of how it came to run the mistaken translation in the first place -- it was their own translation; it came from BBC Monitoring (an independent service provider); it was sourced from an Iranian agency. BBC, however, has still done little but acknowledge the controversy and stop running the quote as it originally appeared.

What has been the real-world impact of this quote, which has been the journalistic equivalent of the living dead, the quote that seemingly cannot be buried? June 2007 saw a member of the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Steve Rothman (D-NJ), making the following on-the-record statement on the floor of the House: "Here we have the President of a sovereign nation...who says that a fellow nation...should be wiped off the face of the Earth, the people killed...Mr. Ahmadinezhad [heads a nation] with an army and with a stated goal of acquiring nuclear weapons to use to carry out his homicidal, genocidal, lunatic delusions of wiping out the State of Israel."

Rothman was not just expressing his feelings; he was speaking in support of a resolution that actually passed the House, with only two dissenting votes, calling for a charge to be brought against President Ahmadinezhad by the United Nations of inciting genocide. Both of the members opposing the resolution, Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) had previously warned their colleagues about the faulty translation that has led to so much mischief, but their warnings apparently fell on deaf ears.

My point is not that Ahmadinezhad is my idea of a proper leader for a proud country of over 70 million people, or that I have any insider knowledge about his nation's true intentions. He heads a sometimes brutal apparatus of governance, is no friend of human rights and is woefully ignorant of vast areas of history and current affairs. My point is that words have meanings and even false words repeated widely have impacts. Words can change our perception of reality, and that perception can move us to act in ways we might otherwise not have. Lewis Carroll, speaking through his character Humpty Dumpty (in Alice Through the Looking Glass) said that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less...The question is which is to be master -- that's all.” I fear that the irony he intended may be lost on many in public life, whose jobs entail “spinning” several stories every day before breakfast. Playing fast and loose with the truth were what got us into Iraq, and what may yet launch us into a shooting war with Iran.

In a January 20, 2005 MSNBC interview, Vice President Cheney said, however, “Given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel,” Israel might decide to attack Iran. This is the import of “mere words.”

President Bush was widely quoted telling an audience, another two years later: "After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon." He repeated the assertion on March 20, 2008, saying "They've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some in the Middle East." Now, Mr. Bush certainly knew that Iran had repeatedly and consistently asserted the peaceful intent of its nuclear programs, and expressly rejected the idea of obtaining nuclear weapons. Surely, this could not have been a simple slip of the tongue (on two different occasions), on a point that lies at the very core of the current contention between Iran and the West.

The Israeli president Shimon Peres, too, said at one point, according to Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid, "Even if Putin says he is not convinced that Iran is conducting nuclear development for the purpose of war, everyone knows their true intentions, and many intelligence agencies throughout the world have proof that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons for the purpose of war and death." This is coming from a country that not only fails to acknowledge the purpose of their own nuclear arsenal, but will not even admit that it exists, though "intelligence agencies throughout the world" are quite certain of it.

In another such suspicious aberration, Agence France Presse, in 2008 quoted an unnamed source in the IAEA to the effect that Iran had denied access to IAEA inspectors to visit the Iranian nuclear plant at Natanz. The report added: "Problems with inspections were confirmed by two other envoys in Vienna." The story was then widely reported by other news outlets. (IAEA) spokesman Marc Vidricaire, said the following day: "There is no truth to media reports claiming that the IAEA was not able to get access to Natanz. We have not been denied access at any time, including in the past few weeks. Normally we do not comment on such reports but this time we felt we had to clarify the matter. If we had a problem like that we would have to report to the (35-nation IAEA governing) board. That has not happened because this alleged event did not take place."

Most egregiously, an unsourced story in the Toronto National Post by an Iranian-born writer told of an action purportedly taken by the Iranian legislature requiring Jews to be visibly identified (reminiscent, obviously, of the Nazi-imposed yellow Star of David). Other markers were said to have been specified for Christians and Zoroastrians. The normally respectable Simon Wiesenthal Centre confirmed the allegation. It took only a few hours for the report to be shown up as a fabrication (by Jewish parliamentarians in Tehran), but the story had already been given life as a media fire-work and to took weeks to fizzle (it may smolder as urban myth today). As author Daniel Perlmutter said about miscaptioned photos, “corrections are rarely as persistent as the deception or error.”

A follow-up story in the same Canadian newspaper quoted Meir Javdanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran and the Middle East who was born and raised in Tehran, as saying "None of my sources in Iran have heard of this," he said. "I don't know where this comes from....In any case, there is no way that they could have forced Iranian Jews to wear this. The Iranian people would never stand for it." Yet, the response of the Canadian Prime Minister was surprising; unable to confirm the original story, he nonetheless said that the Iranian government was “very capable of this kind of action” -- a sort of “non-denial denial,” as journalists sometimes term it, of the original story.

The editor of Editor and Publisher, the authoritative journal covering all aspects of the North American newspaper industry for the past hundred years, Greg Mitchell, took the unusual step of criticizing one particular purveyor of questionable news stories. In a July 16 article, Mitchell noted that a New York Times writer, Michael R. Gordon, appeared to making a habit of breaking stories that ultimately proved to be false -- each with a similar predictable impact: to raise the drumbeats for war. In articles that Mitchell termed "deeply flawed," Gordon had brought the reading public in 2002 "the first detailed account of the aluminum tubes [sought by Iraq, and allegedly linked to their weapons program]. The article cited unidentified senior administration officials who insisted that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of tubes sought showed that they were intended for a nuclear weapons program. "This, of course," Mitchell points out, "proved bogus." The Gordon article cited also included this: “Iraq's nuclear program is not Washington's only concern. An Iraqi defector said Mr. Hussein had also heightened his efforts to develop new types of chemical weapons.... Hard-liners...argue that Washington dare not wait until analysts have found hard evidence that Mr. Hussein has acquired a nuclear weapon. The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”

Although the Times ended up editorially distancing itself from Gordon's misguided raising of the threat level on Saddam Hussein, he was still, Mitchell said, "writing scare stories that offer ammunition for the growing chorus of neo-cons calling for a U.S. strike against Iran...What’s most lamentable is that editors at The New York Times, who should have learned their lessons four years ago, are once again serving as [Gordon's] enablers...The danger of the Times article -- given the prominence attached to it -- is real. For example, Sen. Joe Lieberman responded to the allegations by asserting that this means Iran 'has declared war on us.'"

In point of fact, lax standards of accuracy only achieve the opposite of what our government intends: they aid and encourage an Iranian leader who has his own considerable domestic political challenges. Daniel Levy, who served as an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and headed more than one Israeli negotiating team on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has said, "...where Ahmadinezhad is capable of most effectively pushing back domestically is, of course...when he points to the external enemy...it is clear [that] the more rhetoric is ratcheted up, the more Ahmadinezhad is given a life vest."

Selig Harrison, of the Center for International Policy, when he returned from a visit to Iran during which he met with a number of high-ranking officials, was interviewed by journalist Farid Zakaria on June 15, 2007. Harrison said that “Iran feels surrounded by hostile U.S. power;” to them “it looks like encirclement” and they “consider themselves vulnerable.” As Kenneth M. Pollack wrote, in his The Persian Puzzle: the Conflict between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2004), “’Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone’s not out to get you.’ And we [the United States] were out to get them.”

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