Holocaust conference in Iran: Al Jazeera offers more balance than National Public Radio (NPR) reporter, objective coverage from most other international media
by Ted Lipien
FreeMediaOnline.org Free Media Online, Dublin, CA, December 11, 2006 -- Many international journalists and broadcasters who could have had a difficult time providing their audiences with comprehensive and balanced coverage of the conference on the Holocaust being hosted in Tehran by the Iranian Foreign Ministry managed to overcome most of the problems. There were, however, a few exceptions.
The most notable was Western-trained U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Mike Shuster who failed to offer more than a token voice to balance numerous comments from the Holocaust deniers which he incorporated into his report from Tehran. The NPR reporter included at least seven audio actualities and quotes denying or questioning the Holocaust without airing any substantive views challenging the conference organizers.
In addition to statements from Iranian officials, Mr. Shuster's report featured two audio segments from a former U.S. politician and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. There was only a passing reference in the NPR report from Teheran to a remark by an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox British rabbi who, while being opposed to the formation of the state of Israel, admitted that there is sufficient evidence to prove the Nazi extermination of the six million European Jews. [Link to NPR report]
Despite the highly controversial nature of the conference, the NPR correspondent made a mistake common among some journalists who fail to provide balance for their on-the-scene reporting when opposite points of view are not readily available or when faced with a barrage of propaganda. A classic example of such reporting was the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty's coverage of the Soviet government-created famine in Ukraine and the Stalinist political show trials in Moscow in the 1930s. Mr. Duranty's reporting relied heavily on repeating Soviet propaganda claims. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his work, but subsequently his reporting was strongly criticized by other journalists and anti-communist groups.
NPR program hosts in the United States tried to remedy the lack of balance in the report from Tehran by including a report on a rival conference dealing with the Holocaust being held in Germany's capital Berlin. Their efforts, however, failed to address some of the claims voiced in Mr. Shuster's report. Considering the highly controversial nature of the conference and its propaganda aspects, the correspondent was obligated to provide balance within the body of his report. He altogether failed to highlight and analyze the propaganda aims of the conference.
Coverage of events orchestrated for propaganda purposes is not easy. Some journalists object to the use of the word "propaganda" in order to avoid any accusations of bias, even when scoring propaganda points is clearly the primary motive of newsmakers and their claims are clearly untrue. Some journalists also find it difficult to expose unusual or dangerous behavior among political leaders in non-Western countries. They tend to treat it as somewhat more understandable and excusable than if Western leaders were engaging in similar behavior. Looking back at history, journalists also had a difficult time analyzing outlandish claims by aggressive dictators like Hitler and Stalin. Many journalists initially dismissed Hitler's threats as meaningless and many of Stalin's propaganda claims were reported as facts.
Surprisingly, the Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera's English web site story on the Holocaust conference had far more balance than the NPR report on Monday. Covering the same event, Al Jazeera was able to tell its audience that the conference has deeply offended the 25,000-strong Jewish community in Iran. Al Jazeera quoted comments by Moris Motamed, a leader of the Iranian-Jewish community and a sole Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, who said that denying the Holocaust was "a huge insult." Al Jazeera quoted Mr. Motamed as saying that "by holding this conference, they [the government] are continuing to insult the Jewish community."
[Link to Al Jazeera report]
Al Jazeera also reported that many ordinary Iranians admitted to embarrassment about the event, which followed Iran's decision to hold a competition for cartoons about the Holocaust in October. The Arab satellite television network also quoted an unnamed former senior Iranian government official who said that hosting the conference was unwise given the diplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. The former Iranian official said that "such conferences should not be held."
While Al Jazeera also quoted comments by Iranian officials and some Western Holocaust deniers, its report was far more balanced and objective than what the NPR correspondent was able to report from Tehran on Monday.
Voice of Islamic Republic of Iran made no attempt to balance its reports on the conference. The station reported Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's claims that the West is responsible for anti-Semitic sentiments.
The stories posted on the Voice of Islamic Republic of Iran web site were written in ungrammatical English but made a clear point that the historical reality of the Holocaust needs to be questioned. Mr. Mottaki was quoted as saying that "those trying to politicize historical occurrences have prevent[ed] scientific probe and research on the Holocaust that is supposed to have taken place in Europe during Second World War." Mr. Mottaki was also quoted as saying that "anti-Jewish sentiments are a Western phenomenon while Islam, as a religion based on logic and in harmony with the innate nature of mankind, completely differs from Nazism and other racist ideologies of Europe that had long persecuted Jews and other religions. In view of these facts, he said: Islam and Muslims reject Zionism as a racist political ideology." [Link to Voice of islamic Republic of Iran report]
A comprehensive report posted on the BBC English web site included significant comments from the critics of the conference, but it was balanced with numerous opposing viewpoints. In addition to interviewing Mr. Motamed and including his critical comments about the conference, BBC also quoted Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who condemned the gathering as "a sick phenomenon that shows the depths of hatred of the fundamentalist Iranian regime". BBC also reported on condemnations of the conference by the U.S. State Department and Norbert Lammert, president of the German parliament who sent a letter to Iran's President Ahmadinejad criticizing the event. [Link to BBC report]
CNN also posted a comprehensive report on its English-language web site. It quoted Manouchehr Mohammadi, Iran's deputy foreign minister for research, who told Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA, that Tehran's leaders would accept that the Holocaust occurred if scholars attending the conference could prove that the Nazi regime exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II. Mohammadi said if Iran accepts the validity of the Holocaust, the next question examined will be, "Why should the Palestinians pay for the Holocaust?" CNN also reported that Tehran also plans to host conferences to look into what Mr. Mohammadi described as genocide by Europeans against Native Americans, Africans and the Palestinians.
But CNN also included in the same report comments by Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who organized a videoconference of Holocaust survivors to counter the claims of the Tehran conference participants. CNN quoted Rabbi Hier as saying, "That is why we gathered together Holocaust survivors who will counter these bigots and revisionist claims by giving first-hand accounts of what they actually experienced and witnessed and how their lives were shattered." [Link to CNN report]
A report on Radio Netherlands English-language web site by Thomas Erdbrink favored the official Iranian point of view with only two brief comments in strong defense of the historical reality of the Holocaust. [Link to Radio Netherlands report]
Some broadcasters in countries with close links to the Iranian government chose not to report on the conference, presumably in order to avoid offending the Iranian leaders.
Voice of Russia (VOR) English web site did not post a story on the opening of the Holocaust conference in Tehran while showing on the same day three reports dealing with Russia's economic relations with Iran. One of the VOR stories confirmed Russia's offer to enrich uranium for the Iranians. Voice of Russia also reported on the arrival in Tehran of the Head of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency. [Link to VOR English news web page]
Radio Havana Cuba was another international broadcaster that did not report on the Holocaust conference in Tehran on its English-language web site. [Link to Radio Havana Cuba English-language world news page]
Another government-funded Russian international broadcaster, English-language satellite television news channel, Russia Today TV, which generally provides more objective reporting than Voice of Russia, posted a balanced story on the Holocaust conference in Iran while quoting extensively from statements by the Iranian officials. Russia Today TV ended its story with remarks from the chairman of Israel's Holocaust museum Avner Shalev who said that the conference in Teheran is paving the way for genocide". The report noted that the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel is expected to hold a symposium later this week to discuss ways to deal with the denial of the Holocaust. Russia Today TV failed to report whether there was any comment on the conference from the Russian government. It took the Putin government several days before it finally condemned the conference. [Link to Russia Today TV report]
Beijing's international broadcaster, China Radio International, posted a report the Holocaust conference on its English-language web site and balanced comments by the Iranian officials with criticism from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the U.S. State Department, and the German Foreign Ministry. China Radio International failed to note whether there was a comment from the Chinese government. [Link to CRI report]
Germany's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle (DW), titled its story "Iran opens controversial Holocaust conference" and noted that Berlin is hosting a rival conference of academics. Deutsche Welle online report was short but highly critical of the conference. DW quoted a senior German researcher into anti-Semitism Wolfgang Benz who said that the far-right
scene is becoming increasingly bold in its publicity. [Link to DW story]
U.S. government-funded international broadcaster, Voice of America (VOA), quoted comments by the Israeli Prime Minister and had a report from Los Angeles on how some of the Holocaust survivors have reacted to the conference in Tehran. Surprisingly, VOA English web site did not include Monday's comments by the State Department spokesman who said at the daily briefing for reporters that "a conference designed to try to deny the fact that six million innocent people lost their lives in a brutal, despicable manner is just awful." He added that "the fact that this is a regime that says it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map, [...] should be of grave concern to everybody around the world." U.S.-funded Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, which broadcast in Arabic, do not post news on their English-language web sites. [Link to VOA story] [Link to U.S. State Dept. daily press briefing transcript]
Another U.S. government-funded international broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had one of the most comprehensive and balanced reports on this topic. RFE/RL interviewed Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, who said that the event damaged Iran's national interests and its international image. "As an Iranian, I'm perplexed and astonished by the actions of our foreign ministry. I don't know what is the honor of gathering a group of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and racists -- and bring them to Iran, for what?," Zibakalam said. "I don't understand what our establishment is trying to gain or to prove by doing this. And this is happening at a time when our nuclear case is at the UN and we have to do our best to gain the trust of the international community."
RFE/RL also included a quote from a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Stephane Dujarric, who told reporters in New York on December 7 that Annan regards any attempt to cast doubt on the reality of that "unique and undeniable horror" must be firmly resisted. Dujarric noted that the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2005 that "rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or [in] part." [Link to RFE/RL report]
Of all the reporting by U.S. and international broadcasters monitored by FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit organization which supports press freedom worldwide, only NPR and to some extent Radio Netherlands reports were significantly short on balance. Most broadcasters, including those generally not known for objective reporting due to government controls or other sources of bias, managed to provide balance for this story. Voice of Russia and Radio Havana Cuba failed to include any reports on the conference on their English-language web sites. None of the broadcasters monitored by FreeMediaOnline.org attempted to do an in-depth analysis of propaganda aspects of this story.
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