NPR Host Obstructs Balanced Discussion on Iran

Radio listeners who want detailed coverage of the Middle East conflicts face a conundrum: They often must turn to National Public Radio (NPR) to find programming that delves deeply into events, but NPR’s political uniformity denies them a balanced and fully informed perspective. This problem was evident on November 14, 2013 in an On Pointsegment, Iranian Peace Talks Stay Stuck, devoted to the impasse in talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

The show featured three knowledgeable experts presenting different points of view. But host Tom Ashbrook marred what was otherwise a spirited discussion by repeatedly interrupting Mark Dubowitz, the only guest with whom he disagreed. The result was an affront to Dubowitz, a disservice to listeners and even to the other guests whose point of view Ashbrook clearly shared.

The program opened with what was supposed to be an objective update of the Iranian peace talks by Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal. Hirsh could not resist editorializing in the guise of reporting, chiding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hirsh described Netanyahu as “the very hard-line prime minister” who has “never seen a deal or agreement that he really like. That’s true with both the Palestinians and the Iranians.”

In fact, Netanyahu has offered repeatedly to negotiate with the Palestinian Arab leadership without preconditions. In 2009 he imposed a settlement freeze and recently released Palestinians imprisoned for murdering Israelis as a “confidence builder” to induce the other side to talk. All to no avail until recently, when under heavy U.S. pressure, the Palestinian leadership grudgingly resumed negotiations.

Hirsh also presented French objections to the proposed interim agreement with Iran as so much posturing. He said the French are “trying to convince the Israelis and Saudis that they’re the hard liners.” That France might have substantive reasons for its objections apparently did not arouse the National Journal reporter’s news instincts.

Hirsh’s nine-minute scene-setter was followed by Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East policy. Picking up on Hirsh’s line, Maloney praised the interim agreement advocated by U.S. negotiators. She criticized the French and Israelis for opposing the interim agreement, saying their fears of an erosion of international sanctions were “overblown.” She claimed that the French objections were merely procedural and did not involve substance, even though the French specifically objected to the failure to address Iran’s plutonium processing facility. 
The interim agreement was the only path to avoid war, according to Maloney. “It’s hard for critics of this deal to pose a viable alternative that results in a diplomatic resolution,” she stated and then added, “there really isn’t a rational opposition to such a deal” – as if certain that Iran is sincere about reaching a diplomatic resolution that prevents it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Ashbrook did not question, let alone interrupt, Maloney’s seemingly omniscient observation.

To the suggestion that once sanctions were relaxed companies would stream in to do business with Iran, Maloney retorted that was an “absurd assertion.” She summed up the reported preliminary agreement as “the deal of the century.” Maloney argued strongly that an interim agreement was better than no agreement, but dismissing an opponent’s objections as “irrational” and “absurd” is not the most persuasive way to argue.

Last to be heard from was Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Dubowitz was the only guest to oppose the interim agreement. He observed that the agreement did not freeze Iranian nuclear enrichment processes, did not stop the regime from continuing to manufacture centrifuges necessary for enrichment and did not address Iran’s alternative plutonium process.

Dubowitz had just started when Ashbrook curtly interrupted, “We get that, we hear that, we have paid attention to it, but today we are looking at the core alliance…” Ashbrook did not interrupt either Hirsh or Maloney in such a manner and gave them far more time. Nor was that the last time Ashbrook interrupted Dubowitz.

Ashbrook belittled Israeli concern with the Iranian nuclear program, sarcastically recalling “Benjamin Netanyahu’s fizzing bomb,” apparently a reference to the bomb-with-fuse diagram the prime minister displayed during his 2012 U.N. General Assembly speech, warning against Iran’s nuclear program.

Revelations in the week after the “On Point” segment aired have not been kind to Maloney, Hirsh and Ashbrook’s depiction of Iranian willingness to reach an agreement. London’s Daily Telegraph reported on November 21 that the Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, defiantly insisted “Iran will only sign up to an international deal on its nuclear programme if it is guaranteed the right to continue enriching uranium from start to finish.” Meanwhile, the French newspaper, Le Figaro, published blueprints it claims to have obtained from Western intelligence agencies of a secret Iranian facility to separate plutonium that could be used as an alternative to enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb. In less than a week the talking points presented by the three proponents of the interim deal, counting host Ashbrook, were undermined.

Toward the end of the program, in response to a caller question, Dubowitz finally was able to provide more comprehensive explanations for opposing the interim deal. He recalled that the current “moderate” Iranian President Hasan Rouhani “has a record that he brags about, of nuclear deception.” Responding to a criticism by Maloney, he added, “it is not a false choice between war and surrender.” During a back and forth exchange between Maloney and Dubowitz toward the end of the hour, Ashbrook cut off Dubowitz twice. The second time, shedding his role as an impartial moderator, Ashbrook contradicted Dubowitz without allowing his guest a chance to respond.

It was obvious to listeners that Ashbrook could not restrain himself from interfering with Dubowitz, who, despite being outnumbered on the show three-to-one, was making headway with his argument. “On Point” advertises itself as the place for probing examination of current issues. NPR solicits tax money and listener contributions by claiming it presents matters of substance in the depth lacking on commercial radio. But on November 14, “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook obstructing a balanced discussion of international negotiations with Iran over its presumed nuclear weapons program. It is unfortunate that public radio, which offers a unique public service by devoting a full hour to discuss important world issues in depth, cannot simply allow the chips to fall as they may.

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