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Monday, June 25, 2007


The U.S. (media) vs. Iran

An object lesson in reading the media. The following correction appears (somewhere, not sure exactly where) in today's New York Times. To find it online you would have either had to deliberately search for the original article and then notice that it had been modified and the correction added, or click on the fine-print word "Corrections" in the list of the sections of the paper (both rather unlikely events):
A front-page article yesterday described a crackdown in Iran that has included the jailing of three Iranian-Americans, repression or intimidation of nongovernment organizations pressing for broader legal rights, warnings to newspaper editors against articles on banned topics, arrests of advocates for women’s rights and of student leaders, and the detention of 150,000 people for wearing clothing considered not Islamic.

The headline over the article said that Iran was cracking down on dissent and “parading examples” in the streets, and one paragraph in the article also said that young men detained for wearing tight T-shirts or western-style haircuts had been “paraded bleeding through Tehran’s streets by uniformed police officers.” The Times caption on an official Iranian news agency photograph that ran with the article said that it showed a police officer punishing a young man in public for wearing un-Islamic clothing by forcing him to suck on a plastic container normally used for intimate hygiene, a punishment the article also asserted was for that offense.

But the man in the photograph, according to widespread Iranian news reports, was one of more than 100 people arrested recently on charges of being part of a gang that had committed rapes, robberies, forgeries and other crimes. The caption published on the Web site of the news agency, Fars, had said only that the man was being punished as part of a roundup of “thugs” in a Tehran neighborhood.

The current repression has made reporting in Iran difficult. In this case, The Times relied on an interview with a researcher for a nongovernment agency that no longer operates within Iran who said the photograph was evidence of a more visible police role in public crackdowns on what the authorities consider immoral behavior. The reporter then wrongly interpreted what the researcher said as applying to a crackdown on dress, and incorporated the erroneous interpretation into the body of the article, without giving any indication of the source for it.

These errors could have been avoided with more rigorous editing. The article should not have said that young men had been paraded through the streets for wearing un-Islamic dress, and the headline over it should not have said that dissenters were being paraded as part of the crackdown.
Does this prove there is no repression going on in Iran? Of course not. It does prove you have to be very careful about anything that you read on this subject. Look carefully at the correction. A reporter allegedly misinterprets something said by someone who isn't even in Iraq, and whose only data is a picture! That isn't the only subject of the article, clearly, but how trustworthy is the rest of the information?

As a test, consider this sentence: "A recent article on the Baztab Web site said that about 8,000 nongovernment organizations were in jeopardy, forced to prove their innocence, basically because the government suspects all of them of being potential conduits for some $75 million the United States has earmarked to promote a change in government." Well, frankly, being the recipient of money from a country which has threatened acts of war (if not as a country, then by many of its prominent politicians) is a suspect act worthy of being investigated. But let's look further. I'd never heard of Baztab, but it appears to be some sort of independent news organization focusing on Iran. But a search on the site for the word "nongovernmental" reveals that the only articles including the word "nongovernmental" (or "NGO") were reprints of articles from papers like the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and Christian Science Monitor. I didn't read them all to see if they were the source of this "8,000" number, but it certainly didn't inspire confidence that that sentence had any more factual basis than the one for which the correction was issued.

Caveat lector!

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