How The Media Failed On Iran
In 1979, I was in a PhD program in Islamic History at NYU.
I was there on a US Department of Defense scholarship, which paid my tution and also gave me a $600 a month stipend upon which to live. Needless to say, $600 a month did not cover my costs living in New York, so instead of taking out a student loan, I started working part time.
As my typing skills were pretty good, I got part time work as a typist (in the days before computers and word processing) with a temp agency called Career Blazers. Pretty soon I was working at law firms, banks, insurance companies — anyone who needed typists.
Then, one day, I got an assignment to work at ABC News. I had never been in a TV studio or had anything to do with TV other than watching it, but the show, Good Morning America, did a lot of interviews and they all needed transcriptions.
On my third or fourth day at work, all hell broke loose in the newsroom. I turned to the person next to me and asked what had happened.
“The Iranians just seized our embassy in Teheran,” he said.
Well, that was interesting, but did not have a lot to do with me, so I kept typing.
In a few minutes, the Executive Producer of the show came storming into the newsroom like General Patton. He began to bark out orders. “You! Call the White House! You! Call the Pentagon.” Everyone got a job. Pretty soon he was pointing at me, the temp. “You! Call the Islamic Center in Washington!”
I was getting my $5 an hour, so what did I care? I took off my headphones, dialed up the Islamic Center and said, in my best NYU Arabic, “Salam Aleikum. Ana min al Good Morning America wa…” which was about as far as I got.
Before I knew it, the Executive Producer had grabbed me by the shirt collar.
“You speak Arabic!” he yelled.
I affirmed that I did.
“Where did you learn?”
Here, I just felt the urge to play.
“When I lived in Iran…”
Well, I had lived in Iran, briefly. But of course, Iranians don’t speak Arabic, they speak Farsi, which I did not know. As it turned out, no one in the newsroom, or probably in most of America knew the difference, and it made none to them.
I was hired, on the spot, as the in-house Middle East Expert for Good Morning America. A few minutes later, we were all taken into a large conference room in which most of the big names in the ABC News universe, including Peter Jennings, were present.
The Vice President of ABC News then pulled down a big wall map and spent, I kid you not, about 10 minutes searching for Iran. Finally, she found it.
A few hours later, we were live on the air, deliving ‘information’ to the American public.
Or course, as a graduate student, I wanted to help as best I could, so I cranked out a 10 page paper trying to explain, as best I could, the roots of the Islamic Revolution going on in Iran — from the CIA inspired overthrow of Mossadegh to the difference between Shia and Sunni. They had no interst. The only thing they wanted to know from me was ‘is it Iman or Imam’?
My job each morning was to prep the host of the show, David Hartman, who previously had starred as a doctor in Lucas Tanner, MD, on the people we were interviewing. We got an interview with Sadegh Ghotzbezadi, the new President of Iran. Hartman only wanted to know — ‘is he a good guy or a bad guy?’
Later, ABC News would launch America Held Hostage — a nightly news show dedicated to ‘The Hostage Crisis’. The hostage crisis ran for 444 days. That means, in general, that ABC News had, without realizing it, dedicated 444 broadcast half-hours or 222 hours to one topic -Iran.
If you went to NYU, for 222 classroom hours you could get a PhD in Persian history. After 222 hours on one topic, all of America should have been not only completely educated in Iran, Shia, Sunni and more — they would probably have been fluent in Farsi.
They are not.
The 222 hours were pretty much dedicated to events of the moment or interviews with the hostage’s wives, mothers, fathers, dog sitters.
Not too many years later, the media’s failure to educate the nation came home to roost in the disaster in Iraq.
That same failure to bother to learn anything is now playing out in Iran.
It’s a real tragedy.
The Media could have taken it’s enormous power and reach to teach the nation. They didn’t. Lessons don’t rate.
Good guys vs. bad guys is so much easier to understand.
And outrage and ‘terrorism’ get bigger audiences.