The Truth Is Out There

08.24.15 5:00 AM ET

Iran Deal Truthers

A bizarre and silly social media attack on the Associated Press’ big scoop reveals much about the politicization of expertise.

Sometimes, it’s easy to miss the good old days of the print media. (And yes, I am aware of the irony that you just read that sentence online in The Daily Beast.) In those halcyon days, the diligence required to challenge a story made it more difficult to impugn the integrity of the journalists involved. Accusations of sloppiness, mendacity, or outright fraud usually had to be grounded in something beyond partisan anger. And tarring an entire news organization as unwitting—or worse, willing—participants in a conspiracy was not a charge made lightly by responsible people.

Social media and internet publishing have changed all that.

Late last week, the Associated Press found itself on the receiving end of a kind of Iran Deal “trutherism,” in which people upset by an AP report on one of the Iran Deal’s side-agreements have taken on the same role as the 9/11 “truthers” who were “just asking questions” about conspiracies. They’re not making direct accusations, but the implications are hard to miss. And like the 9/11 truthers, the conspiracies point to the country beloved by truthers everywhere: Israel.

Before we step through that looking glass, let’s back up and review the events of the last few days for a moment.

On August 19, the AP reported on a draft of a side deal between Iran and the IAEA, saying said that Iran would be able to “self-inspect” at its Parchin site, and feed its findings back to the IAEA. The story, of course, had immediate impact: Supporters of the Iran Deal took issue with the whole notion of “self-inspection,” while opponents blasted the news as yet more evidence that the West, and particularly the Obama administration, had caved to unreasonable Iranian demands.

In short order, this predictable debate fell to the wayside as Deal supporters adopted a “shoot the messenger” strategy. In a later version of the same story the AP clipped some of the more controversial claims. Deal supporters pounced, and gloated that the AP was quietly walking back its own story after accomplishing nothing but riling up the GOP rubes who hate the deal anyway.

The next morning, Max Fisher of Vox fired off a story that, at first reading, seemed to eviscerate the AP’s report. A well-crafted lede said it all:

On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press published an exclusive report on the Iran nuclear program so shocking that many political pundits declared the nuclear deal dead in the water. But the article turned out to be a lot less damning that it looked—and the AP, which scrubbed many of the most damning details, is now itself part of this increasingly bizarre story. [emphasis added]

Fisher’s story centered on an interview with arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis, who made a somewhat different argument that what the AP had found was not, in fact, cause for concern. (While I admire much of Lewis’s work, I disagree with him about the Iran Deal, to which I object strongly.)

As Fisher’s story hit the Internet in mid-morning, it crossed in cyberspace with the AP’s updated version of its own story, with all the contentious claims restored. The AP, it turns out, hadn’t “scrubbed” anything and stood by all of it. Fisher amended his own story to note this new development, including an interview with AP executive Paul Colford, who said the earlier version had been cut briefly to make room for GOP reactions.

Still, Twitter lit up with gleeful claims that the AP reporters had gotten the story wrong. Joe Cirincione from the The Ploughshares Fund, an organization that strongly backs the Iran Deal, cited Israeli newspaper Haaretz— which said that the AP had “overwritten” some of its account—and called it a “massive screw-up.” Lewis accused AP reporter George Jahn of “underreporting the story” because “context would have made it less inflammatory.”

These are pretty serious accusations. And then things got really weird.

On Thursday afternoon, the AP published what it claimed was a direct, verbatim transcription of the draft side-agreement. (When pressed by Lewis on Twitter, AP’s Brad Klapper said: “word for word.”) Instead of engaging the substance of the document, however, Iran Deal supporters went for a simpler, truther-ist explanation: The document couldn’t say anything at all, but because it’s a fake.

Interestingly, almost all of the charges and implied charges of forgery hit the Internet at roughly the same time on Friday morning. (At least they did in my Twitter stream.) I’m not pushing my own conspiracy theory, so I’ll just say I have no idea if it was orchestrated. But I hate those kinds of coincidences—and hey, I’m just asking questions.

The Huffington Post made the strongest play by noting that former IAEA official Tariq Rauf said that in his view it was “not an authentic document” and represented an attempt to “hinder” the Iran Deal. Because the AP’s draft referred to Iran as the “Islamic State of Iran”—its official name is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which also appears in the draft—some seized on this as evidence of involvement of…well, You Know Who: “The only one who refers to Iran,” Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council tweeted, “as ‘Islamic State of Iran’ is [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu. And strangely, AP’s dubious ‘draft’ of the IAEA-Iran agreement...”

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AP writer Matt Lee upbraided Parsi, saying: “You know better than this.” Parsi, in classic truther fashion, replied: “I am pointing out the language similarity and calling it strange. That’s it.” Fisher, for his part, called the AP story “troubling” and backed off when Lee also directly challenged him to take a position on the forgery charge. Lewis eventually said he thought “Islamic State” was transcription error, but he spent the rest of the day in a snarky pissing match with Lee and the AP on Twitter.

I do not reflexively condemn such matches, having been in a few of them myself. But the strategy of attacking the reporters, rather than the story, is—to use Fisher’s carefully chosen word—“troubling.” As AP reporter Ken Dilanian tweeted out in the midst of this mess: “Funny how those leveling the most ridiculous criticisms of AP’s Parchin inspection scoop are also those who most ardently support the deal.”

What this story is really about is the politicization of expertise, and how far things can go when one group of experts (arms controllers) decides to fight by impugning the expertise of another group (in this case, reporters) for the sake of public theater. This is almost entirely a phenomenon of new media and the speed of the news cycle in the modern era. The Iran Deal supporters knew there was no point in trying to rebut the substance of the claim: The story was out, people had already read it, and politicians had already reacted. A careful analysis of whether the document said what the AP headline said it did would take too long, and most people wouldn’t bother with it.

Instead, the story had to be discredited and flushed, as soon as possible. There wasn’t time to explain that “monitor” might mean different things to a lay reader and to an expert. Better simply to throw an array of charges at the Associated Press and its reporters and see what sticks.

In the end, the most disturbing question of all is to ask what would have happened if an institution of less prominence and reputation had published this report. The Iran Deal truthers didn’t count on the AP firing back, and despite Fisher’s testy accusation that reporter Matt Lee was having a “meltdown,” the entire company stood behind the story. The backlash-to-the-backlash has begun, and while the IAEA has said the story is a “misrepresentation,” they haven’t said it’s false, either. Neither has the White House. So far, the AP and its story are still here.

The warning shot to other journalists is clear, however. Reporters with one of the most reputable news organizations in the world had to fight off odious charges for doing their job. This is apparently the price to be paid for reporting anything that challenges support for a deal that has reached, among its adherents, the status of a dogma that tolerates no heresy.