On nuclear programs and nuclear weapons programs

Ali Gharib reports: A consensus seems to be developing on Iran’s nuclear program among those hired by major news organizations to keep an eye on their own reporting. Much of the discussion so far has focused on the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program, the most comprehensive publicly-available evidence on the issue. In the document, the IAEA expressed “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.” As a White House official said at the time, the IAEA report neither indicated that Iran has a nuclear weapons program nor that Tehran has made a decision to build a bomb.

A spate of ombudsmen and public editors of major news organizations have come out and bolstered the more accurate reading of the IAEA report — one that raises worries but does not conclude that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. First Washington Post ombud Patrick Pexton said so, urging extra caution because overstating evidence about the program can “play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.” He was followed by New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, who wrote that hewing closely to available facts matters “because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli.” Now, they’re both being joined by Edward Schumacher-Matos, National Public Radio’s ombudsman, and Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ombudsman Michael Getler.

The Organization of News Ombudsman declares in its mission statement: “The ombudsman refrains from engaging in any activity that could create a conflict of interest.” It also says: “The ombudsman is an independent officer acting in the best interests of news consumers.”

If that was really true then news ombudsmen would neither be appointed by nor paid by the news organizations whose output they monitor. In reality, their function is more a kind of refined public relations — they simply provide newspaper editors, journalists, and the companies inside which they operate, an additional layer of protection.

If NPR and others now studiously try to avoid blurring the distinction between Iran’s nuclear program and a nuclear weapons program whose existence has yet to be established, the most likely effect of doing so will be to provide these news organizations with an extra piece of cover in the event that the media once again comes under scrutiny for the role it might have played in starting a war.

The semantic distinction between “nuclear program” and “nuclear weapons program” is significant, but since these terms have already frequently been used as interchangeable and since in wording they are so similar, it is debatable how much will be gained at this point if some journalists diligently avoid substituting one for the other. Too many news consumers will fail to notice the difference and when hearing “nuclear program” will still think “nuclear weapons program” — the former sounds too much like an abbreviation of the latter.

A more neutral and less ambiguous alternative to “nuclear program” would be “nuclear activities.”

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