As the U.S. mutates the rationale for its preemptive invasion of Iraq, the mainstream media continues to pander to xenophobic and partisan denominators vis-à-vis Iran. Despite massive government intelligence failures concerning the September 11th tragedy, the heartbreaking devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the perversely flawed intelligence on non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, major media outlets persist in rushing to judgment on the manufactured Iranian nuclear "crisis". It is a sickening display.
The lopsided reporting is nothing new. American media, in complicity with the U.S. government, has waged a no-holds barred image war with Iran ever since it broke diplomatic relations following the Islamic Revolution. It is safe to say that approximately 99% of the media coverage of Iran over the past 25+ years has been negative, and of that, about 99% is of a political nature. Therefore, although politics is but one facet of life, Iran -- its people, its culture, its history -- is perceived almost entirely through a political vacuum. In this way, Iranians remain an abstraction in the American consciousness, perfectly situated for slaughter should circumstances desire.
The image war officially began in 1979, after large mobs of Iranian students and revolutionaries, demanding the U.S. extradition of the exiled Shah to Iran, stormed the U.S. embassy (dubbed the “den of spies”) and took 52 white male American hostages. The hostage issue was a national obsession, prompting ABC executives to create a specially devoted TV program, “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage,” to update Americans on the situation day by day. Veteran newsman Ted Koppel soon took the helm as anchor of the program, which lasted for 440 of the 444 days the hostages were held. After the hostages were released, the program endured as the newly christened Nightline news program, which Koppel hosted for the next quarter century.
Incessant media coverage of the event contributed not only to American demonization of Iran, but helped wreck President Jimmy Carter's re-election ambitions. Koppel himself has said that the prolonged debacle “probably cost Carter his presidency,” and acknowledged the power of the media to effect reality in a 2004 Nightline broadcast recollecting the hostage days: “It wasn't until a few days later that a producer had the idea of displaying the number of days on ‘America Held Hostage’: Day 15, Day 50, Day 150, and so on. That constant repetition, we learned later, contributed to the defeat, ultimately, of Jimmy Carter as president by Ronald Reagan.”
Since the hostage predicament was only possible because of the 1953 US-backed CIA coup which deposed popular democratic prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the hated Shah, it can be said that Koppel owes much of his career to the reality of said prior event. Koppel hosted Nightline for 26 years -- a duration equal to the Shah's rule of Iran -- and not only reported exhaustively on the hostage crisis, but covered Iran for much of that quarter century. And yet, did you know that in all that time, all those years of covering Iran and the hostage hysteria -- Koppel never once spoke of the 1953 coup, never once uttered the word “Mossadegh”?
In fact, Mossadegh's name was mentioned only two  times in the 26+ years of Nightline history -- on July 11, 1988 as part of a report on the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes (another rarely discussed crime), and on June 18, 2003 during a panel discussion on Iran. In both instances, Koppel was away and had been substituted by a guest anchor.
Having recently stepped down from his Nightline duties, Ted Koppel joined colleague Tom Brokaw (also newly retired from his position as anchor and Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News) on a special December 25th episode of NBC's Meet the Press. And on that Christmas morning, Koppel, probably for the first time in his career, finally acknowledged the coup in response to a question posed by host Tim Russert about Iraq:
“What's intriguing to me, Tim, is we're still talking about the war as though it were in a vacuum, and we're still talking about victory and what is to be achieved as though it were in a vacuum. And the one thing that we are not talking about, because it somehow seems indelicate or unpolitic or even inappropriate, is the simple fact of the matter that while we did not go to war because of Iraq's oil, we did, in fact, go to war because it is absolutely essential to the national interest, not only of this country but also of the Europeans and of the Japanese, that the Persian Gulf remain stable. We have -- when I say ‘we’ I mean U.S. administrations going back to the Eisenhower administration, have been intervening in the Persian Gulf in one form or another -- we overthrew the Iranian prime minister Mossadegh -- that is, the CIA did, precisely because we felt he was too close to the Communist Party at that time and we were afraid what that would mean if Iran became a Communist state.”
“As long as we had the Shah of Iran there, he was our surrogate. In fact, you may remember the Nixon policy was that the shah would be our surrogate in the Persian Gulf. When the shah was overthrown, we shifted our chips onto the Saudi board, and then it became the House of Saud that became our representative. The Saudis are indeed, troubled. The royal family of Saudi Arabia is in deep trouble. Therefore, we need to have a stable Iraq in order to guarantee a stable Persian Gulf, and the name of that game is oil. Nobody talks about that.”
Mr. Koppel's long overdue acknowledgement of the coup as it relates to Middle East policy is misinformed and illogical. He begins by stating the opinion that the U.S. did not invade Iraq for oil, but to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf. This intervention is nothing new, he reasons; we did it in Iran in 1953 for similar reasons, except then, the mission was to block the spread of Communism. In short, it's not about oil, it's about regional stability.
Koppel follows this by contradicting his initial assertion. The Shah was our key to regional stability, he argues, and when he was out of the picture we turned to the Saudis. Now, the key to stability in the Persian Gulf is Iraq, “and the name of that game is oil.” Huh? So it's not about oil, but having said that, it is about oil?
Koppel also falsely claims that the 1953 coup was all about preventing Communism (the convenient excuse for toppling Mossadegh), thereby dismissing any notion that American oil interests had anything to do with it. And his scenario presumes that the 1953 intervention preserved stability in the region, rather than destroying it by retarding democracy and inciting anti-Americanism in that part of the world. Koppel had decades to read up on this enormously significant subject, and when he finally speaks on it, he simply repeats 1950's era propaganda.
Mr. Koppel is apparently unaware of President Eisenhower's own pre-coup diary entry on April 23, 1951, when he wrote, “Lord knows what we'd do without Iranian oil.”
If America cannot properly evaluate the first major intervention in Iranian affairs with the benefit of over 50 years of hindsight, how are we to appraise the motives for a potential future military or geo-political intervention? According to the talking heads of the major networks, who admit to failing the public in the run up to the 2002 US invasion of Iraq, the first step is to keep asking questions.
In October 2004, all three of the major U.S. network anchors -- Tom Brokaw (NBC), Dan Rather (CBS) and Peter Jennings (ABC) -- assembled for a lengthy panel discussion on their profession which aired on C-SPAN. All three men recognized the mistakes of the media prior to the US attack of Iraq. Brokaw spoke of the “martial music” in the air and the failure of the press to connect the dots, but none were as outspoken as Dan Rather, who claimed that every administration in his lifetime has tried to intimidate the press into not asking tough questions.
“Each time [the machine] has gotten better and better, which basically, whether they acknowledge it or not, is ‘We want to instill fear in you -- that you won't ask tough questions, you won't do aggressive, bold reporting, you dare not take a chance because if you do that kind of reporting, we're going to make you pay a terrible price for it’,” said Rather.
In hindsight, what does Mr. Rather regret about his reporting on the Iraq weapons of mass destruction claims?
“Not asking enough questions. We didn't ask enough questions . . . didn't follow up the questions we did ask, follow them up strong enough, long enough, hard enough, to have one of two things happen: either get the questions answered, or to clearly demonstrate that they weren't gonna answer the questions . . . .”
Rather, a man who once famously sassed President Richard Nixon in public, verbally thrashed fellow Texan George H.W. Bush in a live 1988 interview for selling arms to Iran (making the cover of Time magazine in the process), was physically assaulted while reporting live from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, reported from war zones including Vietnam and Afghanistan, and who used to sign off his news broadcasts with the simple word “Courage”; admitted that in the run up to the war, he lacked that very attribute. Courage.
“This is where fear begins to eat into even the best of us,” confessed Rather. “The flag is waving, the Souza music is playing . . . you begin to get confused as to what the role of the patriotic journalist is.”
“The one thing that I think I wish I had done better is ask more questions, had more courage to ask more of the tougher questions, and to not confuse my role as a patriotic journalist with the role of trying to protect your popularity, your ratings, your demographics, and all of that stuff that doesn't matter in the big picture of what's best for the country.”
Important lessons that continue to go unheeded, particularly now that war drums are beating over Iran's alleged WMD program.
Nine months after participating in the forum, Tom Brokaw flew all the way to Iran to file a special TV report on the country's nuclear activities, but failed to investigate his own essential question regarding their energy needs. Reporting on a publicity video released to display Iran's nuclear facility in Natanz, Brokaw closed the piece by saying, “Iran continues to insist this is all for peaceful purposes, for nuclear energy, not weapons. But Iran is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to oil and gas, so why does it need nuclear power as well? That's a question that goes well beyond a promotional video.” [Emphasis mine, “Iranian video highlights nuclear ambitions,” June 3, 2005]
Brokaw's quip signals a significant journalistic opportunity, yet NBC has seemingly made no effort whatsoever to address this question since. Just a month after NBC's feckless report, a Washington Post article appeared to provide some answers to Brokaw's rhetorical skepticism:
“Iran's government pays dearly . . . . The country may boast 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and natural gas fields second only to Russia's. But every ounce of gasoline sold at Station No. 11 at a fraction of the world market price is an ounce Iran does not get to sell abroad. And at least 80 percent of the country's export revenue -- and perhaps 50 percent of its national budget -- comes from selling petrochemicals to foreign markets." [“Iran Guzzles Gas at Its Own Cost,” July 4, 2005]
The media neglected to pursue this lead even after the Iranian government formally laid out a detailed explanation of its nuclear energy position in a full-page ad published in The New York Times:
“The first [assumption] is that Iran has vast oil and gas resources and therefore does not need nuclear energy. Although it is true that Iran is rich in oil and gas, these resources are finite and, given the pace of Iran's economic development, they will be depleted within two to five decades.
With a territory of 1,648,000 km2 and a population of about 70 million, projected to be more than 105 million in 2050, Iran has no choice but to seek access to more diversified and secure sources of energy. Availability of electricity to 46,000 villages now, compared to 4400 twenty-five years ago, just as an example, demonstrates the fast growing demand for more energy. And the youthfulness of the Iranian population, with around 70% under 30, doesn't allow complacency when it comes to energy policy. To satisfy such growing demands, Iran can't rely exclusively on fossil energy. Since Iranian national economy is still dependant on oil revenue, it can't allow the ever increasing domestic demand affect the oil revenues from the oil export.” [“An Unnecessary Crisis: Setting the Record Straight About Iran's Nuclear Program,” November 18, 2005]
Mr. Brokaw's carefree, open-ended report from Iran bears closer resemblance to a high school TV production class than the work of one of the field's most respected correspondents. Why else would a reporter pose an unexplored question unless he has already drawn his own conclusion? Perhaps Brokaw has already decided that in the audience’s mind, the Middle East represents the antithesis of civilization's higher values. In an August 14th, 2005 editorial for The Washington Post, Brokaw wrote, “Defenders and critics of Bush's war on terrorism agree on very little except this: There is a critical need for a more energetic, imaginative and effective campaign to promote the American ideals of democracy, tolerance, compassion and economic opportunity in the Islamic world.”
Brokaw has revealed himself in classically Freudian fashion. First, by buying into and assuming that Bush's “war on terror” is in fact genuinely a war on terror with no other imperialistic objectives. But more importantly, he has exposed his own ulterior favoritism by describing basic human virtues such as compassion and tolerance as “American ideals.”
Born two days apart in February 1940, both Koppel and Brokaw were 13-years-old when the Iranian coup occurred. Koppel, a British-born German Jew, emigrated to the United States that very year, began reporting on TV during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and later likened the paradoxical omnipresence of the television medium to a bastardized Tower of Babel: “We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing.” Brokaw, a Midwestern kid and avowed World War II buff, also began television news in the 1960s, and anchored NBC Nightly News for over 20 years before retiring from his post in December 2004. Signing off as anchor on his final NBC News broadcast, Brokaw summed up his experience thusly:
“The enduring lessons through the decades are these: It's not the questions that get us in trouble.. it's the answers.”
“And just as important,” he added, “knowing no one person has all the answers.”