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Lapdog Journalists

The Iranian Elections and the Faith-Based Media

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

The press is up in arms about Iran’s election and the Khamenei regime’s alleged perversion of the democratic process.  I employ the word “alleged” here, in contrast to the dogmatic certainty expressed by American journalists, because charges of electoral fraud must be verified, rather than assumed.  Middle East experts such as Juan Cole do make a convincing case that the election was manipulated, although his claims rest more on conjecture than hard evidence or empirical data (for more on this, see Cole’s excellent analysis: “Stealing the Iran Election,” at his blog “Informed Comment”).

A review of the media’s reaction to the election reveals much about American journalists’ arrogance and ignorance.  Journalists take a faith based approach to Iran – assuming the worst about the country’s political system, even when substantive evidence is lacking.  A June 14th editorial in the New York Times, for example, bitterly condemned “the [Iranian] government’s even more than usually thuggish reaction” to protests of Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory.  The evidence for electoral fraud, the Times contends, is seen in the large rallies at challenger Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s campaign events, in addition to the publication of some polls suggesting that Moussavi would win over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  These developments supposedly demonstrate that Ahmadinejad was poised for a major electoral defeat, not an overwhelming victory.

The Times also spoke with disdain, although understandably, about the Iranian government’s crackdown on the protestors.  “When protesters took to the streets in the fiercest demonstrations in a decade [against the election’s results], the police beat them with batons. The government also closed universities in Tehran, blocked cell phones and text messaging and cut access to Web sites.”  Other complaints from the American press, however, amounted to vulgar propaganda.  In one blatant case, the Times continued to stoke Americans’ fear over “Iran’s [nuclear] centrifuges,” which “are still spinning,” and its nuclear program,” which “is advancing at an alarming rate.”  Similarly, the Washington Post droned on about “Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions” – seen as “unacceptable” by American officials who “responsibly” wield, and contemplate the use of such weapons for the “greater good” of humanity. 

In line with America’s bipartisan animosity toward Iran, reporters assume the worst about this election.  Another case in point is an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, which posted a “memo to the mullahs: If you’re going to fake an election, at least make the results look plausible.  According to the official tally in Iran’s presidential race, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t just beat his three opponents, he crushed them, winning 63% of the vote and a majority in all 30 provinces.”  It is possible, however, that the declared electoral results are relatively accurate.  Polling done prior to the election did suggest that Ahmadinejad retained a sizable lead against his competitors.  As Reuters reported, one poll conducted three weeks before the election found that Ahmadinejad led his closest competitor by a two-to-one ratio, which was greater than the imbalance that electoral results indicated on election day.  Unfortunately, we may never know the full extent of any meddling in the election, since there were no international observers to certify the event’s legitimacy.

All of the points made in the American press (and in this article for that matter) are largely beside the point anyway.  A far larger question remains for us to ponder which is never discussed in mainstream dialogue: why is it that American journalists and officials assume a divine power to sit in judgment of the legitimacy of foreign governments?  Isn’t this precisely what got the United States in trouble with Iran to begin with?  Americans share major responsibility for the rise of the Iranian theocracy, considering that it was the United States that originally overthrew the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.  Mossadegh was popular among the Iranian people, but not with U.S. political and economic elites.  American leaders were suspicious of Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil – occurring at the height of the Cold War – and decided that a repressive, but pro-capitalist dictator (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was suitable to lead the country.  Pahlavi developed a well-deserved reputation for brutally suppressing his people, and eventually fell from power in the 1979 Revolution.  The U.S. role in this process, unfortunately, is rarely discussed in media debates.  The CIA’s responsibility for the termination of Iranian democracy in the 1950s was well known by the time of the Iranian Revolution, and fears of another U.S. coup were a major motivation or the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the ensuing hostage crisis. 

To this day, Iranians refuse to take seriously American claims that it is promoting democracy in the Middle East.  One can hardly blame them, considering the events described above.  Don’t expect to hear about any of these unpleasant truths in the American press though.  Our journalists would rather stand in judgment of whether Iran’s election is democratic than concede that it was the U.S. that destroyed Iran’s democracy in the first place.  And don’t expect the editors at the New York Times or Washington Post to concede another basic fact – that international and national intelligence assessments long ago concluded Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.  While this reality is understood by the rest of the world, American politicians and journalists subscribe to a faith based “understanding” of global affairs, in which Iran remains a paramount threat.  Presumably, simply repeating ad nauseam that Iran is a threat is sufficient to convince much of the public that a threat exists.

I have documented at length in my previous two books the ways in which the American press distorts the reality on the ground in Iran.  Whether it is the question of Iran’s “nuclear weapons,” the British-Iranian “hostage” crisis, Iranian “aggression” in Iraq, or the recent election, America’s journalists show themselves to be lapdogs of the state, not independent actors.  We should keep this in mind whenever we read stories about Iran in the “paper of record” and its cohorts.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of the newly released: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the “War on Terror” (2008). He teaches American Government at North Central College in Illinois, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu References

Notes.

I statistically document the relationship between increased consumption of American news on Iran’s nuclear program and beliefs that Iran is a threat at length in Chapter 8 of my forthcoming book: When Media Goes to War.