Burying the Lede to Help Your Friends

The duplicity and spin of American media continue apace. Last week, it was NBC “Nightly News’” decision to delete essential information about a deadly police shooting. NBC’s flagship news program edited a 911 call to remove the victims’ cry for help. The caller and people in the background said plainly attackers were trying to stab them. Not that you would know that if your news came from NBC. It deleted any mention of “stabbing” from the call.

But, wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more. NBC News then edited police bodycam footage to remove the picture of the knife, which was about to strike the victim. Those edits were a deliberate, malicious distortion. Gone was the lethal threat that police were rushing to stop.

NBC’s distortion may have appeased the anti-police mob and its complaisant, politically correct viewers, but the report was neither accurate nor honest. Getting it right should be the first duty of any news organization. NBC failed in that basic responsibility.

This week’s installment of dreadful reporting is more subtle. It comes from the New York Times, and it concerns a leaked tape recording of Iranian leaders. As the Times sees it, the real news in that recording is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps actually control policymaking. That is important, but it is a dog-bites-man story.

The IRGC’s dominant role has been known for years. Still, that’s the Times’ headline: “Iran’s Foreign Minister, in Leaked Tape, Says Revolutionary Guard Set Policies.” That’s also the focus of their long news report. The Times itself acknowledges the obvious. According to the “newspaper of record,” the tape “confirms what many have long suspected: [the foreign minister’s] role as the representative of the Islamic Republic on the world stage is severely constricted.”

The Times’ emphasis would be fine if that were all the news in the leaked tape. It’s not. The tape contains something much more important and much more damaging, which the Times chose to bury in the 22nd paragraph. It’s hard to bury it any deeper without striking oil.

The buried news is that former Secretary of State John Kerry divulged highly classified information about a U.S. ally to its deadliest enemy. Kerry, meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, “informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times, to his astonishment, Mr. Zarif said.” That’s the Times’ description.

Kerry has now vigorously denied the allegation, amid calls for his resignation from a senior position in the Biden Administration. “These allegations are unequivocally false,” he tweeted on Monday evening. “This never happened—either when I was Secretary of State or since.” He should be asked to make that declaration under oath.

Meanwhile, Biden’s State Department offered a different defense: “no harm, no foul.” The military operations weren’t really secret, according to the State Department, since they “had already been disclosed by a government in the region,” namely, Israel.

It is unclear exactly when Kerry made this (alleged) disclosure. It appears to have been near the time the Trump Administration killed IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. Around that time, Kerry was meeting with Iranians, urging them to wait for a new, more conciliatory U.S. president, whom he hoped would replace Trump. His meetings were aimed directly at undermining the Trump Administration’s efforts to ratchet up pressure on Tehran.

Why was Iran’s top international official astonished by Kerry’s disclosure? The Times story doesn’t say. It might be because Israel had carried out so many missions. It might be because the United States had a former secretary of state so craven and clueless that he would disclose those secrets to Iran.

The news that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard now controls the country’s policy wouldn’t exactly shock Captain Renault or the folks in Casablanca at Rick’s Café Americain. Louie would pocket his “winnings” and go about his business. What would shock them is the idea that American leaders would give highly sensitive information about the Jewish State’s security operations to its worst enemy.

That disclosure should be the main story, whether you think Kerry did the right thing or not. Even if you think the story of IGRC influence is more important, Kerry’s disclosure of an ally’s secret military operations is a major story. It deserves prominent treatment, not burial in the Times Tomb of News That Might Hurt Our Friends.

Apparently, the Times thought the matter so insignificant that they didn’t even ask Kerry for a comment. There’s not one in the story. It came later, in Kerry’s “hey, not me” tweet.

It’s worth asking who the Times is helping when it consigns Kerry’s disclosures to the bottom of a very long article. The answer is straightforward: the reputation of the Obama Administration and its foreign policy team, who are back in power under Biden and striving, once again, to strike a deal with Iran. With its friends back in control, the Times doesn’t want to undermine them.So, it spins what should be hard news coverage. 

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post has stopped fact-checking Joe Biden. The same paper had been tenacious in calling out Donald Trump for his statements. They’ve killed their fact-checking database now that Biden occupies the Oval Office.

This kind of spin, deceit, bias, and suppression of news is terrible for America. For our embattled democracy to work well, citizens need honest reporting. That’s the only way to hold politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, unions, and universities accountable for their actions. Right now, our news organizations are failing our republic. They are as honest as the roulette wheel in Rick’s Café.


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About Charles Lipson

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com

Photo: Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images