Dignity Overboard: CNN Fuels Fears on Iran

CNN International puts a lot of effort into making itself seem like a grown-up news organization. Their analysts have impressive degrees and impressive resumes. Their voices are powerful. Their accents are British.

It’d be cute, if it weren’t so infuriating.

Hours before Obama’s State of the Union, CNN reported that the crew of an American Navy vessel had drifted into Iranian waters, and was detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—a hard-line military faction. Facts are few, but narratives are abundant. According to some Iranian news agencies, the sailors had been arrested. Other agencies, CNN notes, said they’d been rescued after a malfunction, and would be released when waters were safe (it was 2am in Iran). And the White House, for its part, has maintained that there was nothing hostile behind Iran’s actions.

No one has a clue which story is true. The sailors eventually spoke with the US Navy, and a plan was made to return them when daylight broke. But CNN didn’t know any of that, at the time—so you’d expect their reporting to be as professional as their aesthetic, amid rising tensions in the region and furious Republican invectives against the nuclear deal, which Obama’s speech was expected to highlight.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I just had the pleasure of watching Tom Cotton—the man who literally wrote the letter on being an Iran hawk—play the God of fact and fiction, turning CNN into a megaphone for his own self-serving political narrative.

Iran is trying to "get maximum leverage and inflict maximum humiliation on the United States and Barack Obama," bleated Cotton. Iran had been emboldened by the nuclear deal, he declared, and the United States had to assure Iran that “military force will be on the table to retaliate for this act of aggression.” When asked whether he’d heard reports that the ship may have malfunctioned, Cotton replied “I have not, Wolf. But if they only experienced technical difficulties, why have we not heard from those sailors?”

Maybe we should cut Cotton some slack. His career is fueled by paid alarmism, after all, and contact between the sailors and the navy hadn’t been made yet. Yet you’d think CNN would have the common sense not to have him as their headliner on a topic this sensitive, speculating like an oracle for the cheering audience inside his own head.

But CNN knows that restraint isn’t sexy. It doesn’t get views; it doesn’t pull up fearful memories of the 1979 hostage crisis; it doesn’t stir ratings-bursting rage hours before Obama’s address. So CNN, as any lowest common denominator quasi-news organization/entertainment company would do, set up a gauntlet of Iran hawks ready to speak on the topic—assuming, apparently, that the situation would escalate, and that the IRGC wouldn’t let the sailors contact home-base.

They did. And watching CNN try to save face gave me a wonderful joy.

"Are the Iranians going to hold on to those vessels?" said Wolf Blitzer, a man not unfamiliar with dumping his dignity overboard for ratings.“I suspected from the tone of their comments that the situation was resolved,” noted one commentator, but it won’t end “until the ten Americans are in US hands.” Luckily, CIA operative and renowned military fanatic Robert Baer—who I assume they’d scheduled excitedly earlier—was on hand to back them up. Apparently, the IRGC still had “every reason in the world to hold these sailors indefinitely.”

Maybe they won’t be released, though I have no idea why the Guard and the Foreign Ministry would make their animosity public. But that’s not my point. For three hours, I watched CNN abandon morality, dignity, and truth by exploiting America’s fears of the Iranian bogeyman—all for the sake of its own ratings.

CNN, despite all its pomp, is no noble force, informing the people. At the end of the day, it’s just Fox News lite.

Behbod Negahban

Behbod is a contributing editor at the Envoy, and studies political science at the University of British Columbia. He writes primarily on Iranian politics and the dynamics of the middle-east.

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