Writing in his well-trafficked blog on Friday, University of Michigan Middle East studies professor Juan Cole illustrates the baleful consequences of the media's reliance on Cole and other Middle East studies professors of his ilk to explain the Middle East to Americans: it makes possible the wide dissemination of a distorted, conspiracy-laden picture of that highly volatile region.

For in just a few paragraphs, Cole proposed or implied that:

  1. The harassment of U.S. Navy vessels in the Straits of Hormuz by Iranian patrol craft last Sunday was possibly a GOP conspiracy;
  2. That at a New York Times blog, an "experienced former naval officer" posted comments that further refuted the Navy's story; and
  3. That suspicions voiced in the Iranian press that the videotape was released just ahead of Bush's visit to the region in order to pressure America's Arab allies "to make common cause with Israel against Iran" should be taken seriously.

Let's take these in order:

1. GOP Fabrication: Cole's lede introduced the element of conspiracy to his post:

The Bush administration's assertion that 5 small Iranian boats confronted big, well-armed US ships in the Straits of Hormuz and threatened to blow up the American vessels is looking more and more like a serious error if not a Republican Party fabrication.

So we're to believe that the Bush administration and GOP leadership worked with the top brass in the Navy to concoct this story? Whatever emerges about the how the videotape and audiotape were merged, in light of the USS Cole incident in April, 2000, surely the approach of high speed craft from a hostile power toward US Navy vessels should be taken as a serious potential threat. That a prominent professor of Middle East studies would resort to politicized speculation to explain the event reveals a great deal about the shoddy nature of Cole's analytical methods.

2. NYT Blog: Cole selectively quoted only a single sentence a commenter who called himself "Former SWO" posted at the Times's blog on January 9.

My first thought was that the ‘explode' comment might not have come from one of the Iranian craft, but some loser monitoring the events at a shore facility.

Cole then added his own coda to the comment from "Former SWO":

This episode is just about the most pitiful thing I have seen since Bush came to power, and believe me I've seen plenty.

This leaves the impression that "Former SWO" helped to undermine the US Navy's claim that the Iranians were the aggressors.

Yet this commenter in fact fully accepts the Navy's story that the Iranians were the aggressors; the only doubts he expresses stem from the possibility that the word "explode" may have been uttered not by the Iranians, but by an unknown party with no connection to the encounter. And that is something else entirely.

For example, here's the second paragraph of the comment by "Former SWO":

I can tell you right now that this harassment episode is totally believable; these ships no doubt were trying to interfere with our ships' navigation through those waters, and really put themselves in danger. The fact that our ships came close to firing really helps me understand the immediacy of the perceived threat.

"Former SWO" then spends three paragraphs detailing how the use of a common UHF frequency among shippers in the Strait of Hormuz—a frequency that often carries "racial slurs" aimed at Filipinos who work in the area—may account for the use of the word "explode" in the transmission that the US Navy presented. That may indeed be the case, but it by no means proves that the Iranians were not acting aggressively, as Cole claims.

In the final paragraph of his comment, "Former SWO" echoes the points his made near the beginning of his post:

What I do want everybody to know is that those Navy crews are doing their damned best out there, and given the current situation/previous experience with the USS Cole, would certainly be justified in shooting at any small craft that makes aggressive runs at them, especially after being warned [emphasis added].

Cole quoted selectively to turn the commentary by "Former SWO" from a defense of the main thrust of US Navy's story—that the Iranians acted in a threatening matter that had to be taken seriously—into evidence that the Navy's story was trumped up as part of, as he says in his blog, "a serious error if not a Republican Party fabrication."

3. Believing the Iranian Press: Most Americans, whatever their political persuasion, would likely take the word of the US Navy over that of a state press that acts as little more than a voice for the propaganda and conspiracy theories of Iran's corrupt, theocratic regime. But Cole, like the old apologists for the Soviet Union, readily employs the propaganda of a dictatorship to support his conspiracy theories against his own country.

Cole writes:

The Iranian press is suspicious about the timing of the Pentagon videotape, noting that it was released just as Bush was heading to the Middle East to try to convince the Arab allies of the US to make common cause with Israel against Iran. The Gulf monarchies in particular are very afraid of the Iranian navy, and the Bush administration video would have been useful for pushing the Kuwaitis, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia into agreeing with the Bush grand strategy of surrounding Iran and then cutting it off.

He moves smoothly from noting the suspicions of the Iranian press in the first sentence, to the language of conspiracy in the second, where he writes of "the Bush administration video" rather than of a "US Navy video."

But if we agree with "Former SWO" quoted above, the threats from the Iranian vessels stemmed from their erratic behavior in close proximity to American ships. Whatever emerges regarding the mixing of the audio and video components of the tape, the threat was real, and yet Cole discounts it.

Cole is a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, the primary umbrella group for academics in the field. That a Middle East studies professor upon whom the press relies for insight into this key region can be so wrong-headed in so many ways—and in a single blog post—bodes ill for efforts to bring supply the American public with accurate, reliable information about the Middle East. Overt biases, a selective reading of sources to support preordained conclusions, an eagerness to believe the press of foreign dictatorships over one's own Navy, and the reliance on crude conspiracy theories will ensure only that consumers of media reports on the region are too often misinformed, and that academic Middle East specialists are further discredited.

Winfield Myers is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.