The Iran Project

US Media Coverage of Iran

By Deepa Fernandes

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WALTER CRONKITE:In Iran, conservative forces have closed reformist newspapers, afraid that people might learn the truth about government corruption and repression. But having a more open press in the US doesn't mean Americans get accurate reporting about Iran. In fact, critics say for many years' major US media distorted events in Iran in furtherance of US foreign policy goals. Correspondent, Deepa Fernandes, reports from New York.

DEEPA FERNANDES: The 1950's were a trying time for the US media.

SENATOR JOE MCCARTHY (Archival Tape): Last night I discussed the Communists in the State Department I stated that I had the names of 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party. When I have the names of 57, you can be right well sure there are a lot more.

FERNANDES: Many major newspapers uncritically reported Senator Joseph McCarthy's smears and many reported foreign policy issues from a simplistic anti-Communist perspective.

In 1950, Mohammed Mossadegh became Prime Minister in Iran. He was a nationalist who favored greater democracy and initially enjoyed US support. But in 1953 he nationalized Western Oil holdings in order to give Iranians a greater share of the country's oil wealth.

Professor Mansoor Farhang, who now lives in New York, is a former Iranian Ambassador to the UN and has written a book analyzing US media coverage of Iran.

MANSOOR FARHANG: The press depicted it as very radical, that Iranians were not capable of doing this. It was going to disturb the international oil market. It was something unusual—which it was.

FERNANDES: Prime Minister Mossadegh allowed political parties and newspapers of all political stripes to function openly. But Professor Farhang says both the US Government and media vilified the Prime Minister because he wouldn't side with the US against the USSR.

MANSOOR FARHANG: They didn't believe in neutrality, they didn't believe in authentic democratic development within a country that was not an ally of the west or the east. These articles portray Mossadegh as either a communist, which was absolutely outrageous or someone who really didn't have a coherent view of what he wanted.

FERNANDES: US Government documents now confirm that in 1953 the CIA masterminded a coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh. The US installed the pro-western Shah Reza Pahlavi.

CBS ANCHOR (Archival tape): In the quick shift of power, Mossadegh was finally apprehended and awaits trial for treason. The Shah, who had fled to Rome, comes home. Backed by General Zahidi, military strongman who engineered his return to power. Iranian oil may again flow westward.

MANSOOR FARHANG: From 1953, after the coup to 1979, the image of Iran in the US media is a country going through the process of modernization. He is pursuing modernization and reform from the top. A modernizing monarch who, as Henry Kissinger said, "an unconditional ally."

CBS ANCHOR (Archival tape): The Shah's well-rounded personality is felt throughout Iran. Like his father, the present Shah has always had one thing uppermost in mind: to improve the lot of his people.

FERNANDES: Norman Solomon, a nationally syndicated media columnist, says the press rarely reported the repression, torture and lack of human rights in Iran. He says the major media took their cue from US Government policy, which saw those problems as secondary to maintaining a stable, pro-western regime.

NORMAN SOLOMON: This is chronic reliance on official sources, which is not what journalism should be. Authentic journalism should be independent, assertive, inquiry that is not tied to specific official sources. Instead we had something akin to stenography of the top officials in Washington.

FERNANDES: Elaine Sciolino disagrees. She is a senior correspondent with the New York Times who has covered Iran extensively for over 20 years. She says, given difficult circumstances, many US reporters covered the story well.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Were there journalists who had special relationships with the Shah and with the US government at the time? Absolutely. Did American diplomats tend to curry favor with the Shah and not report on what was going on in the mosques? Absolutely. But I would argue that yes there was a lot of bad journalism before the revolution, but there was also a lot of good journalism.

FERNANDES: Professor Farhang says after the 1979 Islamic revolution, and particularly after the seizure of the US Embassy later that year, US media adopted a new set of biases.

MANSOOR FARHANG: Religion and fanaticism come to replace the modernizing frame.

NEWS ANCHOR: Religion in Iran has always been a passionate, pervasive force, and so Iran has turned its back on the outside world.

MANSOOR FARHANG: There was no economics, there was no politics, there was no culture. Their society was not pluralistic, their social classes having very diverse tendencies, not at all. The dominant tendency in the dominant frame became religion and virtually nothing else.

FERNANDES: In 1997, Iranians elected reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. Then in 2000 they elected a reformist majority to Parliament. But conservatives maintain control in other institutions. The political situation remains complicated, and US policy makers haven't developed a unified policy towards Iran. In this context, says Prof. Farhang; the US media are less likely to take their cues from US policy makers.

MANSOOR FARHANG: Overall I would say the current press coverage is far better than what it was in the past, and the principle reason is that there is a distrust of the official's sources, skepticism of what the officials say to the journalists.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: This is a country where a national experiment is going on between Islam and democracy. The country has not quite figured out how much of each chemical to put in the beaker to prevent a massive explosion.

As a journalist this is both very exciting. It's very dangerous. It's very adventurous because every day one sees this experiment playing out in the streets, in the courts, in the parliament, in the presidential palace, in the villages, in the universities.

FERNANDES: When US policy makers focused a great deal of attention on Iran through the 1980's, some major media delivered their most biased coverage. Today, with the end of the cold war and the situation in Iran far move complicated, at least some major media are providing far better information. For the Iran Project, I'm Deepa Fernandes in New York.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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