Common Dreams - June 25, 2019

"When you 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."

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. ...
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