As widespread anti-regime protests in Iran continue on into their third day, American news audiences are starting to wonder why the US media has devoted so little coverage to such dramatic—and possibly history-making—events. Ordinary people are taking their lives in their hands to voice their outrage at the crimes of an obscurantist regime that has repressed them since 1979, and which attacks and shoots them dead in the streets. So why aren’t the protests in Iran making headlines?
The short answer is that the American media is incapable of covering the story, because its resources and available story-lines for Iran reporting and expertise were shaped by two powerful official forces—the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Obama White House. Without government minders providing them with story-lines and experts, American reporters are simply lost—and it shows.
It nearly goes without saying that only regime-friendly Western journalists are allowed to report from Iran, which is an authoritarian police state that routinely tortures and murders its political foes. The arrest and nearly two-year detention of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian drove this point home to American newsrooms and editors who might not have been paying attention. The fact that Rezaian was not an entirely hostile voice who showed “the human side” of the country only made the regime’s message more terrifying and effective: We can find you guilty of anything at any time, so watch your step.
The Post has understandably been reluctant to send someone back to Iran. But that’s hardly an excuse for virtually ignoring a story that threatens to turn the past eight years of conventional wisdom about Iran on its head. If the people who donned pink pussy hats to resist Donald Trump are one of the year’s big stories, surely people who are shot dead in the streets in Iran for resisting an actual murderous theocracy might also be deserving of a shout-out for their bravery.
Yet the Post’s virtual news blackout on Iran was still more honorable than The New York Times, whose man in Tehran Thomas Erdbrink is a veteran regime mouthpiece whose official government tour guide-style dispatches recall the shameful low-point of Western media truckling to dictators: The systematic white-washing of Joseph Stalin’s monstrous crimes by Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty.
Here’s the opening of Erdbrink’s latest dispatch regarding the protests:
Protests over the Iranian government’s handling of the economy spread to several cities on Friday, including Tehran, in what appeared to be a sign of unrest.
“Appeared”? Protests are by definition signs of unrest. The fact that Erdbrink appears to have ripped off the Iran’s government news agency Fars official coverage of the protests is depressing enough—but the function that these dispatches serve is even worse. What Iranians are really upset about, the messaging goes, isn’t the daily grind of living in a repressive theocratic police state run by a criminal elite that robs them blind, but a normal human desire for better living standards. Hey, let’s encourage European industry to invest more money in Iran! Didn’t the US overthrow the elected leader of Iran 70 years ago? Hands off—and let’s put more money in the regime’s pocket, so they can send the protesters home in time for a hearty dinner, and build more ballistic missiles, of course. Erdbrink is pimping for the regime, and requesting the West to wire more money, fast.
Selling the protesters short is a mistake. For 38 years Iranian crowds have been gathered by regime minders to chant “Death to America, Death to Israel.” When their chant spontaneously changes to “Down with Hezbollah” and “Death to the Dictator” as it has now, something big is happening. The protests are fundamentally political in nature, even when the slogans are about bread. But Erdbrink can hardly bring himself to report the regime’s history of depredations since his job is to obscure them. He may have been a journalist at one point in time, but now he manages the Times portfolio in Tehran. The Times, as Tablet colleague James Kirchik reported for Foreign Policy in 2015, runs a travel business that sends Western tourists to Iran. “Travels to Persia,” the Times calls it. If you’re cynical, you probably believe that the Times has an interest in the protests subsiding and the regime surviving—because, after all, anyone can package tours to Paris or Rome.
Networks like like CNN and MSNBC which have gambled their remaining resources and prestige on a #Resist business model are in even deeper trouble. Providing media therapy for a relatively large audience apparently keen to waste hours staring at a white truck obscuring the country club where Donald Trump is playing golf is their entire business model—a Hail Mary pass from a business that had nearly been eaten alive by Facebook and Google. First down! So it doesn’t matter how many dumb Trump-Russia stories the networks, or the Washington Post, or the New Yorker get wrong, as long as viewership and subscriptions are up—right?
The problem, of course, is that the places that have obsessively run those stories for the past year aren’t really news outfits—not anymore. They are in the aromatherapy business. And the karmic sooth-sayers and yogic flyers and mid-level political operators they employ as “experts” and “reporters” simply aren’t capable of covering actual news stories, because that is not part of their skill-set.
The current media landscape was shaped by years of an Obama administration that made the nuclear deal its second-term priority. Talking points on Iran were fed to reporters by the White House—and those who veered outside government-approved lines could expect to be cut off by the administration’s ace press handlers, like active CIA officer Ned Price. It’s totally normal for American reporters to print talking points fed to them daily by a CIA officer who works for a guy with an MA in creative writing, right? But no one ever balked. The hive-mind of today’s media is fed by minders and validated by Twitter in a process that is entirely self-enclosed and circular; a “story” means that someone gave you “sources” who “validate” the agreed upon “story-line.” Someone has to feed these guys so they can write—which is tough to do when real events are unfolding hour by hour on the ground.
The United States has plenty of real expertise about Iran—not just inside think-tanks but throughout the country. The Los Angeles area alone hosts some 800,000 people of Iranian heritage, none of whom are among the “Iran experts” who are regularly featured in the press. Most of the “experts” tapped by the media to comment on Iranian matters have been credentialed and funded by pro-Iran deal organizations like Trita Parsi’s National Iranian American Council. They are propagandists for the regime. Others, like Hooman Majd and Hussein Moussavian, were actually regime functionaries, who now distribute a more sophisticated brand of pro-regime propaganda inside the US.
The election of Rouhani represents a moderate trend in Iranian politics that the United States should encourage. The cash windfall that will come to the regime as a result of sanctions relief will be spent to repair the economy and address the needs of the Iranian people. Etc Etc.
Americans were systematically bombarded by craven regime “talking points” on mainstream and elite media throughout the Obama presidency—because the president had his eye on making a historic deal with Iran that would secure his “legacy.” Anyone who suggested that there was no real difference between Iranian moderates and hardliners, that the regime will spend its money on its foreign wars, not its own people, was shouted down. Anyone who also belonged to the pro-Israel community—meaning that they cared, among other things, about democratic governance in the Middle East—was denounced as a deceitful dual loyalist who thirsted to send innocent American boys off to war. You know, like those hook-nosed banker cartoons that once enlivened the pages of German newspapers.
Of course it’s difficult to understand what’s happening in Iran now—the Obama White House and the press sidelined anyone who was not on board with the president’s main political goal. To sell the public on the Iran Deal, the Obama administration promoted hack “reporters” and “experts” who would peddle its fairy-tale story-lines, while setting social media mobs on whoever was brave or stupid or naïve or well-informed enough to cast doubt on its cock-eyed picture of Iran—including independent reporters like David Sanger of the Times, as well as the president’s entire first-term foreign policy cabinet.
The current coverage of the protests sweeping across Iran is bad by design. The Obama administration used the press to mislead the American public in order to win the president’s signature foreign policy initiative. The bill for that program of systematic misinformation is still coming in, and the price is much higher than anyone could have imagined, including more than 500,000 dead in Syria and an American press incapable of understanding, never mind reporting, that this death toll was part of Obama’s quid pro quo for the nuclear deal.
And what was gained? America enriched and strengthened a soon-to-be nuclear regime that murders its neighbors abroad while torturing, oppressing, and impoverishing its own citizens. Whether the current wave of protests is successful or not, they show that the Iranian people are heartily sick of the regime that Obama and his servants spent eight years of his Presidency praising and propping up.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).