Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
The New York Times and Politico are helping spread a manufactured scandal against former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, now the White House's special climate envoy, over the manifestly absurd claim that he disclosed secret Israeli operations in the Syrian civil war to Iran's foreign minister.
In articles posted on Monday, the Times and Politico played up attacks on Kerry by Republican politicians such as Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Rick Scott of Florida, as well as former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. By focusing on this aspect to their coverage, they are doing exactly what Fox News is demanding for other media outlets to follow its lead.
In addition, the Times and Politico pieces gave little consideration to the obvious objection that the information was not secret — even though both outlets had reported on the strikes before. (And so did Fox.)
Kerry has issued a strongly worded denial, saying that such an exchange never happened:
Iran International, a United Kingdom-based outlet, first reported on a leaked interview recording of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who claimed that military leaders kept him in the dark about Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria and that he learned of the strikes from Kerry. According to the outlet, this claim is "not very credible," since those attacks were already reported via international media.
An analysis in the right-wing Jerusalem Post saw through the problem in Zarif's claim as well: "The idea that Zarif was told information on Israeli airstrikes by John Kerry and that he didn't know about airstrikes on Iranian convoys in Syria appears ridiculous. Does he not read his own Iranian media? Does he not have any sources inside his own ministry? … Is he the most uninformed foreign minister in the world?"
But in its latest story on Kerry's denial and Republican political attacks, the Times played down the extent to which the strikes have been public knowledge — which if emphasized, would have cast doubt on both Zarif's version of events and any notion of Republican outrage.
"Israel has made little effort to deny years of strikes attributed to it by Syria's government, news outlets and nongovernmental organizations tracking the Syrian conflict," the paper said. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted to the strikes on a hot microphone during a meeting with Eastern European leaders in 2017, with further public admissions in 2018 and early 2019. The Times also could have noted that the Israeli military publicly acknowledged in September 2018 that it had struck over 200 Iranian targets since just 2017 — let alone the time period before that — but the paper instead chose to be vague on just how public this knowledge is.
Instead the Times simply noted: "A New York Times article from 2019 included similar information on the number of Israeli strikes." Besides the hair-splitting over the particular number, the Times previously reported on Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria multiple times in 2013 and also reported in 2018 on the escalating conflict between the two countries. But instead, it referred to just one of its articles from 2019, which happened to include information the Israeli military had already divulged the year before.
Politico followed a similar pattern, covering the story as more of a political back-and-forth in a piece headlined "GOP tears into Kerry amid Iran controversy," without acknowledging the fact that these attacks were already public knowledge.
And while it noted in the seventh paragraph that "Zarif's version of events has not been independently corroborated," one of the asterisks it attached to his remarks was that it is "also unclear whether Kerry allegedly revealed the Israeli operations to Zarif before they were publicly reported by Israel itself in 2018."
But noting such facts now would get in the way of media narratives that rely on covering political squabbles while treating partisan and opportunistic accusations as if they were legitimate.