The Feast and Famine of Iran Coverage in U.S. Media

Mousavi, the true winner of the 2009 elections, is merely an incidental figure on the road of the nation's thirty-year struggle for freedom and equal rights.
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For the past twenty-five years, I have lived in America, first as a reluctant transplanted Iranian always looking pastward, and later, as an exile reconciled with the chronic condition that exile always brings -- most notably an arthritic heart. In the first half of my stay, I was astounded by the leanness of the news coverage of Iran which was biblically vast. In the second half, beginning in 1997, I was grieving the bounty -- so skewed, so dilettantish -- that I prayed for the lean years to return. These cycles of ebb and flow resembled the spikes and dips of a feverish fit far more than the evenness that good reporting demands. Thus rendering the coverage of Iran in American media as consistently flawed.

From the dark hole of newslessness of the 1980s and early 1990s emerged a smiling, "reformist cleric" who commanded the headlines. Whereas Iran's love affair with President Khatami which began in 1997 had ended by 1999 when he failed to join the students who had taken to the streets in support of his agenda, that of the American journalists continued well into Khatami's second term. The essence of most of the news coverage of that era was far less about Iran than it was about the observers' lack of familiarity with that country and its people. Over and over again, the stories tended to be self-centered pronouncements about the Iranians' love of all things American or the Iranian urbanites' penchant for all things western. The surprise of finding teenage Iranians swinging their hips to the tunes of Madonna, consuming alcohol, dreaming of fast cars, and hosting secret house parties revealed the unpreparedness with which these reporters had gone about taking on a highly sophisticated nation with an ancient history of coping with dictators.

Khatami's rise, his amiable manners and surprising panache, gave many among the American intelligentsia the perfect opportunity for the kind of introspection into the CIA's sins of 1953 that was long over due. But as it was coming fifty years too late, it served mostly as a necessary exercise in self-absolution and a diplomatic opportunity for rapprochement. But it was hardly the manifestation of the urgent needs of Iran's majority who were not even born when those sins had occurred.

Little was reported in the Khatami years about what the regime wished to keep obscure: The women's struggle for equal rights, the plight of the religious and ethnic minorities, the labor strikes, the arrest and disappearance of scores of Bahai's, the regime's assassination campaign against the opposition around the world, the rampant corruption among the officialdom, or the deep mafia-like way by which several leading clerics were running Iran's economy -- something that is at the heart of the fissures within the leadership today.

This skewed coverage is the reason why American readers were so flummoxed by the results of Iran's 2004 presidential elections and the sudden emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Instead of searching for flaws within, pundits began to blame Iran for being enigmatic. But this enigma, like most others, was only the product of flawed insight. The Bush years did not help. Any multifaceted assessment of Iran that included an account of the regime's mismanagement or mistreatment of its citizens was taunted as an invitation to another military occupation.

Those of us who follow Iran closely detected a direct correlation between lack of reporting on the state of the activists and minorities and the number of executions and detentions. What Iran's rulers may or may not do with the nuclear bomb in the future remains to be seen. But the coverage of Iran's nuclear development cast such a shadow over all other events in Iran that the phantom bomb has already devastated the lives of hundreds of activists who either perished or are languishing in obscurity in prisons. Iran's chief pyromaniac, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, knows well how to ignite the headlines. His proposed Holocaust cartoon exhibit generated thousands of reports about his intentions. But when the exhibit began and its halls went unfrequented, it was barely reported. His arsonous rhetoric against Israel so blinded the attentions in its blaze that no one could see the valiant journalists and intellectuals who were arrested for criticizing him for diverting much needed funds at home to Hamas and Hezballah.

Was it macho adventurism that attracted so many to cover the nuclear issue at the expense of all else? Or was it self-centrism at work once more? Or were they all victims of the misconception that covering the invisible side of Iran was of no value to westerners audiences? Committing to continuously watching the state of human rights in Iran is not simply an exercise in altruism Americans must embrace against their own interests. It is the only way to learn the full spectrum of the behavior of a system which is detrimental to the global peace. It is the only way a sound policy can be forged.

Today, once again, Iran is receiving another bounty of coverage. But this column is to remind all those who are covering Iran now that if they partake in the feast, they must be there for the famine that is sure to follow. Green is not the last color to symbolize the quest of Iranians, and Mousavi, the true winner of the 2009 elections, is merely an incidental figure on the road of the nation's thirty-year struggle for freedom and equal rights.

It is also to remind fellow expatriates that it is not enough to explain to Americans that Ahmadinejad and his band of thugs do not represent Iran and Iranians. They must believe that fact themselves and remember that a nation's dignity does not only stem from the glories of its past, but also from the undaunted way it goes about ridding itself of those who deface that past.

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