"One of the oldest tricks in the run-up to a war is to spread terrifying stories of things that the enemy may be about to do. Government officials plant these tales, journalists water them and the public, for the most part, swallow them." I wrote this paragraph in December 2002, some three months before the US launched its invasion of Iraq, but it seems just as applicable today in relation to Iran.
The Iraq war of 2003 followed a long media build-up in which talk about Saddam Hussein's imaginary weapons of mass destruction, simply by virtue of its constant repetition, led many prominent journalists to abandon their critical faculties. The Washington Post, for instance, devoted an extraordinary 1,800 words to an extremely flimsy (but scary) story suggesting Iraq had supplied nerve gas to al-Qaida. The paper later conceded that its coverage of the Iraqi WMD issue had been seriously defective, but by then it was too late to undo the damage.
At the New York Times, meanwhile, star reporter Judith Miller was churning out more alarmist stuff about Iraq. One story concerned US attempts to stop Iraq importing atropine, a drug used for treating heart patients which is also an effective antidote against pesticide poisoning ... and nerve gas. There were various possible interpretations, but the implication of this tale, as presented by Miller, with assistance from anonymous official sources, was that Iraq not only possessed nerve gas but intended to use it and wanted to protect its own troops from the harmful effects.