Dorman and Farhang, The US Press and Iran

by Ervand Abrahamian
published in MER153

William Dorman and Mansour Farhang, The US Press and Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).

 

Why did the mainstream press in the US -- especially the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek -- for twenty-five years consistently mislead their readers on Iran? They systematically portrayed the shah as a popular modernizer and venerated leader, and his opponents, including Mossadeq, as backward-looking and rabble-rousing demagogues. They persisted in praising the shah’s land reform as a resounding success when scholars with any familiarity with the countryside knew it to be an abysmal failure. They consciously covered up the CIA role in the 1953 coup -- even as late as 1987, the Times obituary of the US ambassador who had coordinated that coup could not bring itself to admit that the CIA had played any role whatsoever in that venture. It was no wonder, then, that the media was unable to analyze the complexities of the 1979 revolution. The Washington Post went so far as to explain the revolution by arguing that the Iranian people were intrinsically incapable of being “grateful” to the shah for all the wonderful things he had done for them. If the final outcome had not been so tragic one could read the whole story of the US media and Iran as a hilarious comedy.

William Dorman and Mansour Farhang argue convincingly that journalists see the world, including Iran, very much through the same ideological and ethnocentric lenses as the Washington foreign policy establishment; that they tended to distort internal Iranian politics in order to place their “facts” into the Cold War context; and that they blindly toed the White House line that the shah was good for both Iran and the US. The mainstream media sometimes functioned as a large advertising agency for the Pahlavi regime, praising the shah for his “Napoleonic vision,” crediting him with “economic miracles” and claiming that his subjects “worshipped” him as a “semi-divine” leader.

The book is succinct, well-written, thoroughly researched and persuasively argued. It is essential reading for Middle East specialists as well as for students of journalism. What is more, the two authors are ideally suited to undertake this book. Dorman, as a professor of journalism, has for years kept a keen eye on how newspapers deal with international crises. Farhang, as a professor of political science and former ambassador to the UN, has deep personal knowledge of the diverse ways the press distorts Iran.

Some of the best sections of the book deal with the Mossadeq period in general and the CIA coup in particular. They reveal that not a single major paper spelled out for their readers Iran’s main grievances against the British oil company -- how the oil company kept Iranians out of management positions, how it did not allow the host government to inspect company books, and how it grossed profits of $3 billion between 1913 and 1951 but sprinkled down to Iran a paltry $624 million. Instead the press carried numerous articles describing Mossadeq as a “rabid fanatic,” a “dangerous lunatic,” a “dizzy old wizard,” and a “tantrum-throwing Scheherazade.” Some compared him to Hitler and Mussolini. Interestingly, the mainstream press in 1951-53 frequently described Mossadeq as a “dictator,&dquo; but used that label for the shah on only four occasions in the whole of the 1953-78 period -- even though Mossadeq, in sharp contrast to the shah, did not ban newspapers, imprison critics, outlaw parties, torture prisoners, and execute opponents. Of the four occasions, one praised the shah for being a “benevolent dictator”; another criticized him for not being decisive enough with the opposition.

The book also has a fascinating section summarizing interviews with Kenneth Love, the Tehran correspondent of the Times during the 1953 coup. Times editors ignored Love’s request to investigate the coup, scoffed at any suspicion that the US had a hand in it, and eventually eased him out of Tehran when his reporting failed to be pro-shah enough. The US ambassador by then had concluded that Love was “unpatriotic.”

In arguing that the press failed mainly because of its deferential attitude towards the Washington establishment, Dorman and Farhang underestimate and sometimes completely overlook three other contributing influences: the Israeli factor; the British connection; and, even more important, the Pahlavi network. Many editors, themselves highly pro-Israeli, surely supported the shah at least in part because they considered him a rare and valuable item -- a Middle East leader sympathetic to Israel. They were willing to overlook “minor” shortcomings, such as his human rights record, as long as he remained on cordial terms with Israel.

The British factor was important during the 1951-53 oil crisis. Many newspapermen had wartime links with Britain. In 1951, soon after the British Foreign Office launched a concerted campaign to win over the American public, the US press began depicting Mossadeq as a dangerous xenophobe. Drew Pearson, columnist for the Washington Post, eagerly fabricated stories on how Husayn Fatemi, Mossadeq’s Foreign Minister, had been convicted of appropriating government funds. The fact that such character assassinations had no factual bases seemed irrelevant to the journalistic profession.

The Pahlavi network was even more important -- especially in the 1970s when the shah could afford to be extremely generous. The revolutionary government quickly published a long list of prominent Americans who were favorably disposed to the former regime and claimed that most of those in the list had benefitted from Pahlavi generosity (Ettela’at February 9, 1979). The list included Arnaud de Borchgrave, Joseph Kraft, Barbara Walters, Betty Beale, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, and Mrs. Arthur Sulzberger. Though such prominent individuals were surely too honorable to have their judgement influenced, we humble members of the reading public can be forgiven if we toy with the idea that perhaps there was some link between their views and the regime’s generosity. James Bill investigates this Pahlavi connection in his recent book, The Eagle and the Lion.

Lest readers conclude that this is all past history, they should keep an eye on which journalists are now allowed into the Islamic Republic, and what they produce -- not just in the mainstream media but also in the alternative press. The tradition of journalistic deception lives on despite the change of regime.

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