by Robert Wright
When military conflict between the United States and Iran seems to be approaching, and you’re trying to get a clear picture of the situation, I’m only half-kidding when I say there’s a case to be made for staying glued to Fox News. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of pro-war propaganda. But at least you’ll know that’s what it is. If you instead tune in to “mainstream” media, you may think you’re getting an objective account when in fact you’re getting an account that’s biased in favor of war—just biased in subtler, harder-to-detect ways than the accounts on Fox News.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that mainstream journalists and commentators who evince these biases are consciously anti-Iran or pro-war. Usually the problem is just that they’re Americans, viewing the world through American lenses, relying on America’s ecosystem of expertise. And, of course, they’re human—which means they have cognitive biases that distort reality in accordance with their group affiliations (such as, say, being American).
Consider a report that ran on NPR Thursday, hours after Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone that, according to Iran, had violated Iranian airspace and, according to the United States, hadn’t. Rachel Martin, host of Morning Edition, began the segment by providing some context: “Since the Trump administration announced a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, Iran has responded by attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”
Actually, we don’t know that. The Trump administration claims that Iran was behind the tanker attacks, but Iran denies it, and all the evidence adduced by the Trump administration is circumstantial. I’d say the chances are pretty high that Iran was behind at least one of the two sets of tanker attacks (there was one in May, one in June). But as seasoned U.S. intelligence officials have noted, there are numerous nations in that region with an incentive to stage an attack that Iran would be falsely blamed for. A reporter shouldn’t report something as fact unless it’s been established beyond reasonable doubt, and that hasn’t happened here.
Then Martin recounted the drone downing and brought on her nonpartisan guest analyst—Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. diplomat who worked in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. As Miller soon made clear, he recognizes that Trump got America into the current mess by abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and then ratcheting up sanctions against Iran. This no doubt inclined lots of listeners to view Miller as objective; he seemed like an American who is capable of seeing things from Iran’s point of view.
And, as Americans in the foreign policy establishment go, Miller is good at seeing things from Iran’s point of view. Still, if you look closely at his words, you see signs of a cognitive bias known as attribution error. Here’s how attribution error works:
When an enemy or rival does something bad, you attribute the bad deed to disposition—you see it as growing out of the basic character of the actor, a reflection of the actor’s nature. (Makes sense, right? Your enemies do bad things because they’re bad people; you wouldn’t choose good people as enemies!) But when a friend or ally—someone in a tribe you identify with—does something bad, you attribute the bad deed to situation. You know: peer group pressure, or the fact that they didn’t get their nap, or whatever. Thanks to attribution error, our view of our fellow tribe members as fundamentally good can survive any amount of bad behavior on their part.
Miller doesn’t evince an egregious version of attribution error. As I’ve said, he does recognize that Trump’s sanctions have put “the Iranians under tremendous pressure and pain”—so the attacks on the tankers (which he, like Martin, seems sure were Iranian acts) shouldn’t have been too surprising.
Still, if you look at the language Miller uses to describe Iran’s attack on the drone, and the language he uses to describe the U.S. attacks that he expects to come in retaliation, there’s a difference in framing.
Miller calls Iran’s downing of the drone a “willful attack.” In other words, though situational factors may have encouraged the attack, they didn’t compel it; they didn’t leave Iran with no choice. But how does Miller describe the military response he expects from the Trump administration? “I suspect the administration will have to find a way to respond.” (Emphasis added.) Trump it seems, has no choice; situational factors compel a military response.
Martin responds to this by asking Miller whether he’s saying Trump should respond militarily. No, Miller says: “I’m reporting here. I’m not moralizing or editorializing.” It’s just that he recognizes that, even if Trump’s own actions—abandoning the nuclear deal, imposing draconian sanctions—have put him in the predicament he’s in, he’s in that predicament: “administrations have political problems, and they usually entrap themselves by unwise rhetoric and actions.”
So, even though Trump, not Iran, initiated the sequence of actions that led to the current crisis, any military attack that Trump now launches is a product of situation, not disposition: Trump is “entrapped” and so “will have to” respond militarily. Iran, in contrast, acts dispositionally, volitionally. Indeed, in the process of explaining how trapped Trump is, Miller applies the language of volition to Iran a second time: “Now you have a willful challenge on the part of the Iranians,” he says.
A willful challenge! Well, who can blame a person for responding aggressively to a willful challenge? Especially when the person is trapped?
This may seem like a small thing—a difference in language so small that even a semiotics grad student might not bother with it. To which I have two replies:
1. Yes, it is small—that’s the problem. The nuances are so subtle that you probably won’t notice them, so you’ll remain unaware of the effects they’re having on you and you’ll remain trusting of mainstream media.
2. This kind of thing is pervasive. It’s all over NPR and CNN and MSNBC and The New York Times and The Washington Post. The culprit isn’t always attribution error. Often it’s just a tendency to buy into the prevailing American view of Iran as dangerously destabilizing, belligerent, and repressive—whereas in fact there are several countries in Iran’s neighborhood (all U.S. allies) that by objective lights do at least as badly as Iran on this scorecard.
The day after the NPR report, I walked by a TV at the YMCA and heard Juan Zarate, MSNBC’s “senior national security analyst,” assert that Iran “presents a whole host of risks and threats” and then list with seeming sympathy the Trump administration’s familiar litany of inflated grievances and hyped fears. This is standard procedure for most “experts” who appear on MSNBC and CNN to talk about Iran. (Zarate worked in the George W. Bush administration, which initiated the Iraq War. If MSNBC wants to make people with that kind of track record go-to experts, that’s its business. But would everyone please quit calling MSNBC “liberal” and “progressive”—because when it comes to foreign policy, it is emphatically not left of center.)
There’s also, throughout America’s mainstream media, a consistent failure to exercise “cognitive empathy”—not to try to feel their pain (that’s “emotional empathy”) but just to do basic perspective taking: to see the world from Iran’s point of view and so, for example, understand that Iranian moves that America considers offensive and provocative Iran may consider defensive. Failing to do this elementary exercise can lead the United States to exaggerate the threat Iran poses, which in turn can lead to war.
Last year, I wrote a piece for the Intercept called “How The New York Times is making war with Iran more likely,” showing how a front-page New York Times article did exactly this in subtle but consequential ways. And this week I’ve searched in vain for a single reference in the U.S. media to the following fairly obvious fact: If you’re Iran, and the United States has been making louder and louder noises about bombing you, American surveillance drones are deeply threatening, because one of their jobs is to pave the way for the bombing and make it as devastating as possible. So, deterring the deployment of drones in your vicinity by blowing one up can be a defensive strategy. One man’s “willful challenge” is another man’s tenacious D.
Two weeks ago, in the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, I wrote about something I called ironic tribalism: “a sense of tribal affinity that coexists with an awareness that the tribe in question is an essentially arbitrary collection of people.” If everyone applied an ironic attitude toward the arbitrary collection of people known as a nation, I said, you’d get a world full of people who “cherished the good in their country but kept in mind that their tribal affiliation was giving them a selective rendering of reality.”
I suspect that there are liberals who occasionally watch Fox News with a conscious sense of irony. I recommend that they apply that attitude more broadly.
Robert Wright is editor of The Mindful Resistance Newsletter, where this article originally appeared, and the author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller Why Buddhism Is True. He is visiting professor of science and spirituality at Union Theological Seminary in New York.