by Farideh Farhi
The headline in The New York Times Story on Iran on August 31 was succinct. It stated: “Iranian State Media Reports Arrest of Reformist Politician.” Although the headline later changed to “Reformist Politician Is Said to be Held,” the only problem was that by the time the story came out in the newspaper of record the reformist politician, Ali Shakurirad, was already released.
The Times piece had other flaws. Prior to his “arrest,” Shakurirad was conducting a press conference as the newly elected general secretary to discuss the party’s position and electoral strategy (and not, as the Times reported, to thank President Hassan Rouhani for a more open political atmosphere). Shakurirad’s colleagues in the newly formed reformist political party suggested that he visited the Evin court on his own (challenging the line in the Times that security forces arrested him after the press conference).
Relying on the reports from the hardline press, the Times also suggested that Shakurirad’s arrest had to do with what he said in the press conference. But on his release, Shakurirad himself rejected this and said that he had been summoned prior to the conference for past activities and detained because he could not provide the bail set for his release. But after a few hours the prison officials asked him to call home for someone to come and post bail. A Twitter account belonging to the newly formed party suggested that the arrest was by “more radical forces,” while the intervention of “higher authorities” and “more reasonable forces” led to his release.
The Times story acknowledged conflicting reports in various Iranian news agencies, identified as “semi-official” or “official” in the piece, about the reason and circumstances of Shakurirad’s arrest. But rather than waiting to check the details, the editors provided a headline that covered its bases by stating that it was merely reporting what appeared in the Iranian press. In this way the Times delegated responsibility for the truth of the story to the so-called state or official media without pointing out that the outlets that connected the arrest to Shakurirad’s “insistence on previous offices and seditionist activities” were hardline.
What Is “State Media”?
The New York Times’ elevation of the hardline press to the standing of state media, with all the definiteness and unity that term conveys, follows a pattern. The reality of Iran’s media is that many outlets are state-funded (even the reformist press is subsidized). Most even belong to various institutions within the state. And they are all highly politicized. In other words, their reporting is skewed depending on their affiliation and the people who run them. The same disagreements that divide people within the Iranian state and its institutions also divide the so-called state media.
For instance, both Iran Daily and the Islamic Republic News Agency, identified as “official” in the Times story, effectively tow the executive branch’s line. They used to be quite hardline during Ahmadinejad’s presidency (and most of the people who ran them now produce news and write commentary for the hardline Vatan-e Emruz daily). With the change at the helm of the executive branch, IRNA and Iran Daily have also changed.
The problem with The New York Times reporting is not necessarily its reliance on the highly politicized Iranian press. The problem is that, for quick turn-around stories, it does not do due diligence to see whether the story is in fact true, which is essential in Iran’s highly contested news reporting.
The Case of Farnaz Fassihi
To give another example, let’s look at the way that The New York Times reported on the threats made against Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal reporter that the Iranian hardline press deemed to be the person relaying a message from the Green Movement leaders to US officials. The hardline press brought up Fassihi’s name after Michael Ledeen, the neoconservative commentator of Iran-Contra fame, published a piece in Forbes claiming that Senator Chuck Schumer, through a Wall Street “friend,” was tasked to ask Green Movement leaders how the US could help. The outlet Ledeen writes for, PJmedia, then published an eight-page, unsigned, and undirected letter, claiming that it was written by the Green Movement leaders.
Notwithstanding the fact that the letter reads a lot like something Ledeen himself wrote, the hardline press pointed to the missive as an example of the Green Movement leaders’ perfidy. Kayhan even made Ledeen’s claim of contact into headline news. This was true to form and a perfect example of how hardliners in the two countries feed off each other.
Beyond the attack against the Green Movement leaders, The Iranian hardline press also, mistakenly or intentionally, mixed up Wall Street with The Wall Street Journal and identified Fassihi, who has not reported from inside Iran for years, as the go-between.
The Wall Street Journal issued a strong statement pointing out the confusion and malice involved. The New York Times, however, went further and reported:
The Journal’s statement coincided with a repetition of the accusations against Ms. Fassihi in Iran’s parliament by Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, an influential lawmaker who is a relative-in-law of Ayatollah Khamenei, the semiofficial Mashregh News website reported. According to the website’s account, Mr. Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to Ayatollah Khamenei’s son, quoted extensively from a Kayhan editorial containing the accusations, published on Aug. 12. He also asserted that leaders of the Green Movement, through the alleged liaison in 2009, had urged the United States to impose sanctions on Iran at the time “because Iran was going to make a nuclear bomb.
The problem with this reporting was that Haddad Adel never mentioned Fassihi. The Mashregh report mentioned by The New York Times did not reference her when I checked after the Times piece came out. Nor is she mentioned in the record of parliamentary proceedings. Parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live in Iran and all “in-between speeches,” which Haddad’s was, are published verbatim in the parliament’s online site. Again there is no mention of Fassihi.
So, based on the alleged report of one hardline site, which had originally peddled the falsehood about Fassihi, The New York Times decided to suggest that the attack against Fassihi went beyond the hardliners in the press and was happening in parliament and circles close to Leader Ali Khamenei.
Now, to be clear, Haddad Adel, true to form, did use the unsigned letter. But he did so to attack former presidential candidates Mir Hussein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi. In his speech in parliament, delivered on the occasion of the 62nd anniversary of the CIA-led 1953 coup, his message relied entirely on this unsigned letter suddenly produced after six years by Ledeen. After the parliamentary, session, Haddad Adel was immediately criticized by another conservative MP, Ali Mottahari, who pointed out that the letter was unsigned and produced by an untrustworthy source.
The Times Responds
I wrote The New York Times about this. The Times responded that it stood by its story because the story was checked thoroughly the night before in Tehran and, according to Mashreqh, Haddad Adel did speak about Fassihi. Then, this confident assertion from Tehran was followed by this:
Of course it is very well possible that following the upheaval Masghregh news omitted that part of Haddad Adel speech. This happens all the time in Iran.
I leave it to others to assess whether it is possible to erase something completely from the Iranian media, especially given the habit of serial reproductions in other outlets with similar outlooks. After all, Google works in Persian too!
But let’s assume that all references to Fassihi in Haddad Adel’s speech were erased in Mashregh and similar outlets. What is disconcerting is the lack of concern about whether Haddad Adel actually said what the Times reported him to have said. Even if Mashregh mentioned her, I hate to think that the Times relies on hardline Mashregh for its news coverage of Iran and did not bother to double-check to see whether the story was true or not. Several media outlets covered Haddad’s speech, and not a single one mentioned his reference to Fassihi.
The only reason I followed up on this particular story was because common sense told me that the mention of a Wall Street Journal reporter in the midst of a frontal attack on Mussavi and Karrubi was unlikely. The real and missed story here was the way an Iran hawk—which the Times calls a conservative scholar—in the United States gave fodder to hardliners in Iran to attack imprisoned leaders of the 2009 movement.