During the past week, Americans have been treated to the spectacle of America’s mainstream news media stumbling over itself while attempting to define the newly elected President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for American readers and viewers.
To anyone still reeling from its impotent interrogation of (and robust support for) the Bush administration’s transparently spurious rationale for invading Iraq, this week’s media performance was both frightening and depressing.
It began normally and professionally enough, with articles by the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune (from the Los Angeles Times) on June 26, 2005, that described Ahmadinejad’s background, his rapid rise to power and his “hard-line” or “ultraconservative” views and policies.
Invariably, the reports got around to his expressed determination to exercise Iran’s rights to the nuclear fuel cycle under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (It’s widely believed that successful completion of this cycle would provide Iran with the option to build nuclear weapons.)
Although the Times published thoughtful and nuanced articles about Iran’s new president, it also published a nuanced article belied by its flagrant headline: “U.S. Challenge in Iran: Victory by Hard-Liner Could Widen Rift on Terror and Nuclear Program.” “Terror” and “nuclear” are emotionally laden words, but when it comes to American-Iranian relations, they are innocuous when compared to any reference to the Americans taken hostage in 1979. Yet, the very second paragraph of that otherwise balanced article advised readers that America is now “facing a populist who came to age in the student union that took over the American Embassy in 1979.”
Given Middle East expert Kenneth Pollock’s observation that “the hostage crisis has left a terrible scar on the American psyche.” [Pollock, The Persian Puzzle, p. 172] it was not unreasonable to expect the Times to accompany any reference to the hostage crisis with an explanation about why Iranians chose the American Embassy in November 1979. Yet, it failed to do so.
But, the June 26, 2005, CBS Evening News’ report on Ahmadinejad was far worse. Not only did it serve up a script containing inflammatory half-truths about the date and reasons behind U.S.-Iranian antagonism, it also provided viewers with visual reminders of the hostage crisis. The inflammatory half-truths went as follows: “America and Iran have been at odds since 1979, when Iranian students, followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, seized 52 U.S. Embassy Staff and held them captive for 449 days, before releasing them.”
Like the Times’ article, the CBS report also failed to explain why the American embassy was seized. Thus, Americans were reminded about the embassy seizure by two prominent news sources, but neither explained that the Iranians seized the American Embassy, in part, because they suspected that President Carter and the deposed Iranian dictator, Muhammad Reza Shah, were planning another American-led coup.
Another coup? Yes, in 1953 the Eisenhower administration gave the CIA the green light to topple the constitutional government of democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq and replace it with the dictatorial rule of Muhammad Reza Shah. Thus, America and Iran have been at odds since 1953 (not 1979), when America, not Iran, was the offending instigator.
Moreover, as Dilip Hiro recently has written, “The CIA-engineered overthrow of Mussadiq’s constitutional government…blocked the development of Iran as a multi-party, democratic state.” [Hiro, Iranian Labyrinth, p. 353]. Americans should keep Hiro’s observation in mind whenever Bush administration officials decry the absence of democracy in Iran.
Yet, as Pollock correctly concludes, the embassy seizure was more than a precautionary move. “It was an act of vengeance for the 1953 coup, designed to humiliate the United States, to cause pain to the American people, and to assuage the angry psychological scars that the Iranian people still bore from that event.” [p.155]
Unfortunately, it was the very absence of such obligatory historical context that permitted the news cycle on Ahmadinejad to deteriorate into farce.
Consider the July 1, 2005, front page of the New York Times. It juxtaposed two photos, one recently taken of Ahmadinejad, the other of someone resembling a younger Ahmadinejad—but who’s seen escorting a hostage. The accompanying headline reads: “U.S. Pursuing Reports That Link Iranian to Embassy Seizure in ’79.”
That article prompted me to send the following “letter to the editor” email to the Times:
To the Editor:Even if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took part in the embassy seizure in 1979, as some former hostages contend, both the Bush administration and America’s news media have an obligation to explain precisely what provoked the event that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called “the second [Iranian] revolution, greater than the first.”
The first revolution in February 1979 was led by Khomeini and overthrew some twenty-five years of dictatorial rule by Muhammad Reza Shah. But the Shah ruled for twenty-five years because the Eisenhower administration gave the CIA the green light to implement Operation Ajax in 1953, and thus engineer the coup that toppled the constitutional government of democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq. Eisenhower moved because the British government, fearing the nationalization of its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, persuaded him that Mussadiq’s rule was leading to a Communist takeover. (Two birds of a feather, even then!)
In fact, because the 1953 coup and the 1979 Embassy seizure were so closely connected in the minds of Iranians, Khomeini refused to release the hostages until Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President—thus demonstrating Iran’s ability to topple an American leader (Jimmy Carter).
Thus, lest the embassy seizure be manipulated to magnify the threat to America posed by Iran’s nuclear program, both the Bush administration and America’s news media are obligated to give Americans the complete story.
Walter C. Uhler
Apparently the Times didn’t find my letter “fit to print.”
Unfortunately, that Times’ article was representative of a brief, but widespread, media feeding frenzy that sent U.S. Representatives rushing to support new sanctions under The Iran Freedom Support Act.
Yet, in slightly more than 24 four hours, the farce had ended. No, the farce didn’t implode because some competent reporter told the full story behind the taking of the hostages; it collapsed because authoritative doubts and denials rendered a link between the two photos improbable.
Was it too much to ask that the mainstream media withhold these stories about Ahmadinejad, until the allegations of former American hostages could be investigated? Why the urgency? Did the out-of-context references to the embassy seizure, respectively published and broadcast by the Times and the CBS Evening News on June 26, 2005, cause the news cycle to degenerate into unverified claims that Ahmadinejad was one of the hostage takers of 1979?
Regardless of how these questions are answered, the damage has been done. For, just as the attacks on September 11 rendered many Americans susceptible to spurious arguments for invading Iraq, so, too, has the media’s irresponsible reporting of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s involvement in the embassy seizure generated yet more susceptibility to political manipulation by the Bush administration.
Although it’s now Iran, it nevertheless appears to be “Déjà vu all over again.”