Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Aljazeera on Iran: a note on the media and the Iran story

I have been critical of US and Saudi media in their coverage of the Iran story. You shall notice this about the US media: their mainstream (and not very high at all) standards of professional journalism are lowered substantially in stories that are related to the pressing foreign policy agendas of the US. For example, Judith Miller's reports in the New York Times based on the anonymous contacts of Ahmad Chalabi would not have been made it into the New York Times if they relate to UK, or more importantly to Israel. If somebody comes with information on the nuclear arsenal of Israel, I don't think that the New York Times would ever publish them and would subject the source to the kind of torturous cross-examination and humiliation that rape victims are subjected to in the justice system of the US. CNN of course is a worse case: here is a network that can only compete with its Fox News rival by an increasing lowering of standards and by daily increase of sensationalism and shallow and fluff journalism. I tell my students the story how I decided to basically (for the most part except when I am in the right mood on rare days) boycott appearances in mainstream (and even non-mainstream) US media a few years ago when I was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN. In the middle of the interview I had a moment in which I heard myself asking (myself): why on earth am I talking to Anderson Cooper on foreign policy? If you want to talk informatively or thoughtfully about foreign policy on CNN you are a mere prop. The coverage of CNN of Iran has been typically sensational, shallow and worse: utterly patronizing about the Iranian people. Typically, when the story of foreign policy relates to a pressing agenda of US foreign policy, the standards are lowered. I mean, I now tell a source on CNN that a cousin of a friend who is a neighbor of somebody who has a cousin in Tehran, told me that Ahmedinajad or the Maximum Leader of North Korea has a potato-like tumor on his head, I would be on the air in a half an hour. Compare that to stories on Israel: when Israeli soldiers told Israeli media that they witnessed Israeli war crimes and partook in them, Ethan Bronner wrote a long article just to discredit them and to dismiss their own claims. I have mocked how the New York Times now covers Iran from Cairo and Beirut and...Toronto (on clear days, you can see Iran from Toronto but not from Vancouver). And it relies (and that is really against the standards of journalism preached in introductory classes of journalism) on what IT CALLS "independent observers" in Tehran. Some suggested to me that I should blame the Iranian regime for expelling the journalists: of course, I do and the regime has not just started to repress freedoms of expression. This has been a staple of the Iranian regime. But I also blame the New York Times for 1) not informing the readers of the restrictions DAILY; 2) for relying on the so-called "independent observers" in Tehran. Of course, the New York Times' dispatches from Israeli are consistently subjected to the military censor in Israel and the New York Times is obligated to inform its readers of that at the bottom of every dispatch: and this is especially important given the highly obnoxious and conceited slogan of the Times on top. And let us not forget the complicity of the American press on the side of successive US administrations in support of the Shah over the decades before the Revolution. Have you read James Bill's The Eagle and the Lion? You have to read that massive and important book which reveals many aspects of US foreign policy towards Iran, especially the gifts of carpets, diamonds, and caviar from the Shah's regime to "prominent" US journalists: liberals and conservatives alike. I will not say much about Al-Arabiyya TV (the station of King Fahd's brother-in-law): it has become so sensational and so wild propagandistically: I have been referring to it as the Michael Jackson-Fahd TV as of late. They just can't get enough of the Jackson story. But I have my own criticisms of AlJazeera TV too: and if I think that the Economist magazine is the best example of print journalism there is, I still think that AlAjazeera Arabic is the best example of visual news. But there are problems: I have always felt that their correspondents in Pakistan and Afghanistan tend to be quite sympathetic (to various degrees) to Taliban and even Al-Qa`idah. But the coverage of Iran has been flawed too: if Al-Arabiyya TV begins its newscasts of Iran developments with reports that are unrealible, propagandistic, sensational and always on the verge of reporting the ultimate collapse of the regime, AlJazeera really pushes the Iran story way to the back of the news. It is covered after reports of elections in a small village in Latin America and I am only slightly exaggerating. But what bothered me yesterday is that they reported on Iran (and after so many other reports) and then the able Majid `Abdul-Hadi narrated a report on Iran in which he talked about the doctrine of Wilayat Al-Faqih as being the central belief of ALL SHI`ITES. That is so untrue and so irresponsible. In fact, I know of no Shi`ites in Lebanon who consider `Ali Khamenei as their "object of emulation." In fact, I once asked Hasan Nasrallah on the matter: what if a member of Hizbullah does not want to consider Khamenei as his/her "object of emulation", I asked? He said that they have to accept the political authority of Khamenei but that they can select some other cleric for emulation on non-political matters, and that there are some who do that. Most Shi`ites in Lebanon follow Sistani or Fadlallah, although there are no studies or figures in that regard. By the way, you need to read the early critique of Wilayat Al-Faqih concept by the late Southern Lebanese cleric, Muhammad Jawad Mughniyyah. His critique (Al-Khumayni wa-d-Dawlah Al-Islamiyyah) was the earliest of its kind. OK, good night.