O’Reilly and Milbank Both Wrong About Reporting Iran

There’s an interesting little spat brewing between Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. Now, I usually like Milbank’s stuff alright — he often makes me laugh (or cry) by detailing hypocrisy in Washington and his old pool reports are the stuff of legend. (No comment on O’Reilly.)

Tangential to this tiff was a discussion of the dangers of reporting in Iran. But both Milbank and O’Reilly are completely off base about what it means for Westerners to report from Iran. It’s high demonization, and the way they bandy about these falsehoods is rather reckless — considering the ramped-up campaign for war with Iran — and disrespectful to those Iranian reporters whose brave reporting puts them at risk from their own government.

While I have no problem with a little humorous sniping — especially at Bill O’Reilly’s expense — one should be aware of what they are talking about. I’ve written before about how making fun of Iran can have the effect of demonizing the country , by placing Iranians in the camp of “the other.” Or as Harvard professor and Foreign Policy blogger Stephen Walt put it, mainstreaming war.

But first the background: On his show, O’Reilly joked about beheading Milbank. After getting a viewer complaint about the crassness of such a joke, O’Reilly responded by saying:

Well, let me break this to you gently, Heidi [the complainer]. If Dana Milbank did in Iran what he does in Washington, he’d be hummus.

Milbank rightfully responded to O’Reilly in a column on Wednesday, putting the latter’s crassness and hypocrisy on hilarious display. But he backed up O’Reilly’s baseless charge about Iran:

O’Reilly is partly right about that. As an American and a Jew, I probably wouldn’t last long in Iran. And criticizing the government there, as I do here, wouldn’t add to my life expectancy. But what was he trying to say? That America would be better if it were more like Iran?

This is hogwash. “As an American,” Milbank would be fine reporting in Iran. Even as a Jew. Even if he criticized the government. Just as another American Jew did: Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist who broke the rules for foreign reporters, went out on the streets in the middle of the post election turmoil, braved the regime’s brutal crackdown, and reported back for everyone in the West to see what was happening. No one mashed up this particular chic pea. Hummus isn’t even an Iranian dish (far be it for Bill O’Reilly to make distinctions — gastronomical or otherwise — between Muslims in Arab countries and Muslims in Iran).

Cohen, of course, was deported from Iran. But he showed a partisan flair in his reporting and, as I said, violated the terms of his press visa. Other Western journalists who operate within the government’s regulations seem to stay in Iran without much trouble or harassment.

But Cohen’s fate pales in comparison to that of Iranian nationals who blog and report on Iran. Take a look at the Committee to Protect Journalists page for Iran and review the fate of these reporters. It belittles their sacrifice for their country, and for journalism ,when O’Reilly and Milbank make flippant remarks.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.