WaPo Ombudsman Calls Post Headline Saying Iran Wants Nuke Weapons ‘Misleading’

Reposted by arrangement with Think Progress

Last month, ThinkProgress pointed to misleading polling questions in a Quinnipiac University poll. The questions referred to “Iran’s nuclear weapons program” when neither the UN’s nuclear agency nor conseus U.S. intelligence estimates have asserted concretely that Iran has made the decision to produce a nuclear weapon.

The important distinction between a “nuclear program” and a “nuclear weapons program” was made again, on Friday by the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton. Pexton criticized the newspaper’s headline “Iran’s quest to possess nuclear weapons” and the subhead “Intelligence shows that Iran received foreign assistance to overcome key hurdles in acquiring a nuclear weapon, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Pexton writes:

But the IAEA report does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.

Iran steadfastly denies it is aiming for a nuclear bomb and says its program is aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research. Of course, Tehran could be lying. But no one knows for sure.

Pexton’s response, titled “Getting ahead of the facts on Iran,” concludes that:

In a Web-driven world, one bad headline can circle the globe in minutes and undermine The Post’s credibility. It can also play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.

The campaign calling attention to the misleading headline was led by Just Foreign Policy, and Pexton gives them credit for being on the right side of an important issue. Pexton’s column on the dangers of rushing to judgement on Iran’s nuclear program is a valuable contribution to the debate over how best to confront the IAEA’s legitimate concerns.

Pexton is right: While Iran hawks speak in cocksure terms about the Iranian nuclear program, the newsroom of a major national newspaper has a responsibility to limit reporting on it to available facts.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.