[March 14, 2016]
Mideast Dig will scrutinize New York Times coverage of the Middle East in a regularly updated feature. We call it ‘FIT TO PRINT?’
There are details below on why we are lasering in on the Times in this fashion. (We also have a Diamonds & Daggers* section that critiques many major media outlets.) But first we will award a dagger* to the New York Times for questionable practices in Iran that were exposed by reporter James Kirchick in Foreign Policy magazine.
[A version of this article was originally published in The Mideast Reporter. Mr. Kirchick subsequently joined Mideast Dig as a Contributing Editor.]
And for their hard-hitting story, the magazine and Kirchick get a diamond*
His article—“Iran’s Fellow Travelers at the New York Times“—is a vital one for media executives and staffers to read and to discuss publicly. Mr. Kirchick writes that for $7,195 (not including airfare to and from Tehran), journalists at the Times are serving as tour guides to Iran for adventurous travelers who can afford the 13-day treks being offered for sale.
[A giant tip of the hat to Ira Stoll for his story on the subject at smartertimes.com in October, and to Joseph Cohen for bringing it to our attention.]
For example, editorial board member Carol Giacomo is helping lead a group that is there right now, despite the fact that international sanctions against the Islamic Republic have yet to be lifted. And on December 27, Times writer Elaine Sciolino—a former chief of the paper’s Paris bureau who is evidently now working for the company’s travel bureau—will head to Tehran to help lead another group. (The six trips currently planned through December 2016 are “SELLING FAST,” notes the Times Journeys travel section.)
At the same time that the newspaper is raking in money from its Iran trips, as well as helping tourists spend cash that will help bolster Iran’s economy (and regime), the Times has published columns imploring the Iranian government to release Jason Rezaian—the 39-year-old Washington Post correspondent who’s been in prison on espionage charges for 502 days.
(“Jason has done nothing wrong,” said Post executive editor Martin Baron in a statement on Wednesday. “Iran has never even bothered to produce any evidence against him. His so-called trial was a sham. Recent announcements, without details, of his supposed ‘conviction’ and ‘sentencing’ have only added new layers of cruelty.”)
In his Foreign Policy article, Mr. Kirchick writes: “While the [New York Times] has been demanding the release of an American journalist—one now facing a prison sentence of indeterminate length—some of its own journalists, under the auspices of their employer, have been engaging in a commercial enterprise that benefits his captors.”
The Times is promising “beautiful landscapes” in Iran for tourists to enjoy, as well as visits to five castles, a palace, the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s residence, and what the newspaper calls the “peaceful Eram Garden.” Needless to say, the notoriously brutal 15,000-inmate Evin Prison, where Rezaian is being held, is not on the itinerary.
Unfortunately, according to Mr. Kirchick, Times correspondent and tour guide Sciolino hasn’t responded to his pre-publication requests for comment—even though it’s been more than 28 hours since his article posted. Nor has board member-turned-travel escort Giacomo.
Times columnist and former foreign editor Roger Cohen, who is helping lead another Iran journey in February, handed Mr. Kirchick off to a Times spokesperson to address his questions, says Mr. Kirchick. The spokesperson, Eileen Murphy, told the magazine reporter that these excursions are operated by the business side of the New York Times Company, and not the edit side.
Furthermore, Ms. Murphy said these trips will have no impact on the newspaper’s news coverage from Iran. But Mr. Kirchick wonders “if the Times would jeopardize its newfound business relationship with Iran if Tehran no longer approved of the paper’s coverage.”
On that point, we’re comfortable with Ms. Murphy’s position, unless evidence emerges that proves otherwise. For one thing, the Times has been pressing hard for Mr. Rezaian’s release, publishing numerous stories and opinion pieces—such as this one in September by its editorial board that called the charges against him “absurd,” accused Iran of conducting a trial that was “neither fair nor transparent,” and warned that “…Many countries are eager to resume business with Iran, but Western companies are unlikely to invest in Iran’s atrophied economy if journalists and others can be arrested on bogus charges and thrown into a black-hole penal system.”
On the op-ed side, however, it’s worth noting that tour guides Cohen, Giacomo and Sciolino were supporters of ending the sanctions against Iran in return for limits on its nuclear activities—with Ms. Giacomo praising the “act of courage” by one Jewish Congressman (Jerrold Nadler) in voting in favor of the nuke agreement that the Obama Administration began implementing in October.
For her part, Ms. Sciolino sharply criticized a Jewish Senator (Charles Schumer) for making what she called a “wrongheaded and irresponsible decision” to vote against it. “Bad Decision by Senator #Schumer on IranNuclear: He should take a #NYT Journey to Iran for a first-hand look,” Ms. Sciolino tweeted in August.
Of course, if the senator was even interested in doing that, he might first want to poke through his passport for any signs that he’s traveled to Israel. One year ago, Israel-based reporter Dave Bender wrote in the Jewish newspaper Algemeiner that when he phoned the number listed on the Times travel website, he was informed by a representative that “…anyone with a page in their passport with an Israeli visa will be declined.”
Times columnist and tour guide Cohen once labeled opposition to the Iran nuclear pact by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Republican presidential hopefuls as “foolishness dressed up as machismo.” This contrasts with the view of fellow Times columnist David Brooks, who was strongly opposed to the nuke deal. Mr. Brooks also called Iran “a fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime” that will “dangerously cheat on the accord” and use its multi-billion dollar windfall from the lifting of the sanctions to “spread terror in the region.” Unlike his colleagues, Mr. Brooks is not moonlighting as a tour guide there. And that’s probably a smart thing. [Story continues below.]
Aside from the unseemliness of the Times getting into the Iranian tourism trade, particularly at this time, one must question the judgment of the newspaper’s business executives—given that the U.S. State Department strongly warns Americans to carefully consider the risks of travel there. The U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic or consular relations with the regime and can’t provide protection or even routine consular services to American citizens there.
Despite the regime’s hostility towards the U.S., most of its citizens are known for being extremely warm and welcoming towards American visitors. But the newspaper’s executives are putting themselves on a non-stop flight to disaster if violent conflict—internal or external—breaks out while, say, one of their tour groups is shopping in the “colorful bazaar” in Kermanshah (scheduled for Day 2 of each trip).
After all, many active members and recruiters for ISIS have been in that Kurdish province for two years. One such group of terrorists there was recently “destroyed,” according to Iran’s commander of its Revolutionary Guards Corps. They were found with “military gear and time bombs,” he said, and could have carried out terrorism attacks inside Iran.
Three days ago, the Obama administration announced that it expects to start lifting sanctions on Iran. (The International Atomic Energy Agency says it has found no credible evidence that Tehran has recently engaged in atomic-weapons activity; however, Iran has showed limited cooperation with the investigators.) International sanctions could be lifted as early as January, reports the Wall Street Journal. While it’s not illegal for Americans to travel to Iran, one does wonder why the newspaper is selling these excursions right now.
The New York Times journalists involved in the Iran odysseys shouldn’t be dodging uncomfortable questions from fellow, seasoned journalists. They should step up to the plate and answer them—not defer to a company spokesperson—just as they’d expect people to respond to their questions when reporting Times stories or writing columns.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is pressuring Iran to release 30 imprisoned reporters there, including Jason Rezaian. (Only China has more journalists behind bars.) Some jailed reporters in Iran have claimed they were tortured. Jason’s brother, Ali Rezaian of California, who told Mr. Kirchick that he finds the Times tourism profiteering to be “unseemly,” says that Jason was held for many months in solitary confinement. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that its journalist is in “immediate danger,” as his health worsens and mistreatment of him by his jailers escalates.
The New York Times has long been a financial supporter of CPJ. Moreover, Susan Chira (Times deputy executive editor), and Geraldine Fabrikant Metz (a contract Times writer and former staffer) serve on the organization’s board. What their views are on these Iran excursions would be good to know, and we’ll be trying to find out.—R.B.
* DIAMONDS & DAGGERS: Mideast Dig will publish a regular feature: an ongoing analysis of good and bad media coverage of the Middle East. In a homage to Columbia Journalism Review’s time-honored “darts and laurels,” we will award “diamonds” for good work and “daggers” for journalism we feel is wanting. We also do this as (we hope) a wakeup call to our peers at CJR, who have largely abrogated their oversight role when it comes to Middle East-related journalism by major media outlets.
Why a special section devoted only to the New York Times?
The Times is the gold standard in journalism — a true wonder of the world that towers over its competitors like the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is used as a teaching tool in journalism schools and is still the career goal for many budding reporters. Moreover, it remains, even in the 24/7 Internet era, the leading table-setter for a vast number of major media outlets. It’s a weighty responsibility.
Though it covers many subjects well and thoroughly, the Times readily admits (sometimes decades after the fact) that it overlooks or carelessly covers major stories. One of the most staggeringly-notorious examples is the Holocaust, which the Times ignored or buried on its back pages throughout World War II. Former Times executive editor Max Frankel called the Times’s poor coverage of the Holocaust “surely the century’s bitterest journalistic failure.” He noted the newspaper’s “reluctance to highlight the systematic slaughter of Jews.”
Another notable failure of historic proportions is its downplaying of Stalin’s atrocities by its Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, who nonetheless won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his odious dispatches. (The Times, again, belatedly acknowledged its egregious journalism long after the fact.)
Is the Times in the midst of a similarly historic failure in its Middle East coverage? Time will tell, and history will be the judge. What is not in dispute is that its coverage of the Mideast and related subjects has been dogged for years by accusations of bias, lack of balance, lack of context, and violations of even basic journalism standards. This has been reported previously on a number of occasions, such as in this “Media Intifada” expose (published originally by the Editor of Mideast Dig at Forbes.com).
These concerns are so often justified that the newspaper’s global importance merits ongoing scrutiny by media professionals. Unfortunately, journalism watchdog organizations and journals largely dodge that responsibility when it comes to the Middle East — and when it involves outfits like the Times.
Our aim is to examine Times coverage not as critics but as colleagues, and as lifelong fans. We’ll be looking for deviations from journalism standards and also examples of what the Times does best (although rarely in the Middle East): fair, nuanced long-from investigative reporting.
The current Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, all but ignores this area. Remarkably, in November 2014 she conceded that she was reluctant to explore whether the newspaper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is biased. Wherever one comes down on that conflict, given its importance and urgency, surely the subject of fairness and accuracy needs to be addressed more often at the Times—not less.
It’s our firm belief that for deep and sustainable reforms to happen in any industry (be it law, finance, journalism, anything), it must happen from within the trade. Ultimately only the New York Times can reform itself, but we’re going to do everything we can to help it get to that place.
The Mideast Dig, Inc. is a Rule 501(c)3 nonprofit organization under the U.S. tax code. All donations are tax-deductible.