Exclusive: Besides following dangerous “group thinks” on big questions, like the Iraq War, the mainstream U.S. media runs as a mindless pack on smaller details, too, such as the conventional wisdom about Saudi Arabia’s “snub” of President Obama over the Iran nuclear deal, as Jonathan Marshall describes.
By Jonathan Marshall
Media coverage of politics in America all too often consists of reporters issuing seemingly authoritative declarations or quoting anonymous sources to support their prejudices about public figures. Sadly, the same lazy style of journalism, verging on malpractice, also infects coverage of foreign policy and national security, despite the profession’s soul-searching over misleading coverage leading up to the Iraq War and other notorious blunders.
The latest example could have serious consequences for public perception of the Iran nuclear deal. In the wake of Saudi King Salman’s visit to President Barack Obama last week, reporters who should know better dredged up and repeated easily refuted claims that the king “snubbed” Obama last spring to protest the then-interim “P5+1” agreement.
Their unsubstantiated claim is important for two reasons: It makes Obama look like a weak leader, out of touch with and disrespected by important U.S. allies; and it casts further doubt on the wisdom of the Iran accord, which still faces a major test in Congress.
For example, the New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote on Thursday that “King Salman, who refused Mr. Obama’s invitation to a regional summit meeting at Camp David in May in light of the discord over the Iran deal,” was only now ready to put aside his differences with the President after “months of tension.”
Similarly, Dan de Luce, chief national security correspondent for Foreign Policy, declared that “The newly crowned king was supposed to conduct his inaugural trip to the United States in May, but the monarch snubbed an invite to attend a summit of Gulf leaders at Camp David because of Riyadh’s strong disapproval of Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.” Having “failed to stop” the agreement, Salman was now pressing Obama “to do more than simply promise to help his nation counter Iran’s proxies in the region.”
Their unqualified assertion about the Saudi snub hearkens back to political speculation, nothing more, aroused last May when King Salman canceled plans to attend a U.S.-sponsored summit of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders. At the time, Republican opponents like John McCain were, not surprisingly, quick to spin the king’s no-show as “an indicator of the lack of confidence that the Saudis and others have.”
Pundits at conservative think-tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies also weighed in, postulating that Salman’s change of travel plans suggested “disappointment at minimum, and perhaps underlying anger that the president doesn’t understand their position and doesn’t want to.” In a classic display of pack journalism, numerous other media outlets carried the same message without an iota of evidence.
Had the Saudis really intended that message, they could simply have refused comment or deflected questions. Instead, they refuted the speculation in no uncertain terms, both on and off the record.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters (including the Times’ Peter Baker) that the 79-year-old king’s decision to send his country’s two top officials, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister, to the summit was no slight.
“The idea that this is a snub because the king did not attend is really off base,” he insisted. “The fact that our crown prince and deputy crown prince attend an event outside of Saudi Arabia at the same time is unprecedented.” Al-Jubeir said the king decided to stay home to monitor the expanding war in Yemen and pursue a cease-fire.
Speaking off the record, a “person close to the Saudi government” told the Washington Post that “the decision was a combination of the situation in Yemen and what is to be the ‘technical nature’ of the conversations about Iran at the summit, which the king felt the senior officials in the delegation . . . were better equipped to handle. ‘They did not mean it as a snub,’ the person close to the Saudi government said. ‘They were not trying to send a message.’”
Moreover, contrary to much media speculation, the Saudis were already publicly on board with the Iran negotiations, albeit with caveats about the need to counter alleged Iranian meddling in the region. Back in April, Saudi Arabia’s council of ministers, the king’s cabinet, said it welcomed the interim P5+1 deal with Iran and “expressed hope for attaining a binding and definitive agreement that would lead to the strengthening of security and stability in the region and the world.”
No wonder, then, Saudi Arabia today says “We believe this agreement will contribute to security and stability in the region by preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.”
Now, even if Saudi Arabia’s king really had snubbed President Obama and opposed the Iran nuclear deal, both actions might have spoken well for the U.S. leader. Contrary to the subtext of most stories citing the “snub,” there’s no good reason why a harshly autocratic, reactionary regime founded on primitive Islamist doctrines should guide U.S. interests or policy.
But many casual media consumers will inevitably accept the unexamined assumptions of recent coverage of Saudi-U.S. relations and its implicit critique of the Obama administration. It takes close attention, more than most readers can spare, to see through the misreporting and spin that passes for foreign policy journalism at many of America’s leading media.
If one of the primary purposes of such journalism is to enlighten the public and support more educated citizen debate in our democracy, all too many reporters today are failing at their job.
Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]