NYT’s Passive, Misleading Coverage of Iran Political Protests Draws Mockery, Outrage

As the protests in cities and towns across Iran enter their sixth day, the New York Times has caught a lot of flak in the wake of its passive, often misleading initial coverage of the political uprising again the mullahs and (moderate) President Hassan Rouhani, as people rebel against the oppressive state, and shout slogans blaming the government for focusing on Hezbollah and Palestine while ignoring issues at home.

The paper’s Tehran-based reporter Thomas Erdbrink, who has a history of excuse-making for the regime, got off to an awful start with “Protests in Iran Over Economic Woes Spread, Including to the Capital.” It led with this attempt to pass off the multiple protests as merely economic in nature.

Protests over the Iranian government’s handling of the economy spread to several cities on Friday, including Tehran, in what appeared to be a sign of unrest.

Later, he suggested that a 40% hike in the price of eggs, not political repression, was fueling the unrest. Erdbrink also seemed rather petulant that he had to be roused to actually cover the story, due to its presence on social media: “What seems distinctive about the protests this week is how quickly news about them spread on social media and was in turn picked up by foreign-based satellite channels.”

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While the BBC reported back on December 29 that “The protests began against rising prices but have spiralled into a general outcry against clerical rule and government policies, the Times was insisting it was purely about economics and the legitimacy of the Rouhani regime was not being challenged.

Elliott Abrams wrote at the Council on Foreign Relations website December 29 and contrasted Erdbrink’s NYT’s coverage unfavorably with that of the BBC:

Now compare today’s New York Times coverage. It is entitled “Scattered Protests Erupt in Iran Over Economic Woes.” More remarkably, consider the very first line:

Protests over the Iranian government’s handling of the economy spread to several cities on Friday, including Tehran, in what appeared to be a sign of unrest.

Ya think? “Appeared” to be a sign of unrest? What else was it, a sign of support for the ayatollahs? And note the Times title again, telling you these protests are all about the economy -- a conclusion contradicted by the words being shouted by the protesters, as the BBC tells us. In fact, buried down in the Times story we do find that in Kermanshah “protesters shouted antigovernment slogans like ‘Death or freedom,’ ‘Care for us and leave Palestine’ and ‘Political prisoners must be freed’….” Does that sound like a "protest over economic woes?"

The Times story is written by its bureau chief in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink, one of the very few Western reporters (he is Dutch) accredited to report for U.S. media. Must he pull punches for fear of being expelled from Iran? After all, this is a regime that has invaded embassies (most recently, for example, the British Embassy in 2011) and in 2009 the entire BBC bureau there was shut down and the BBC’s correspondent expelled. In 2014, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was arrested and then imprisoned for 18 months. He and his wife are now suing the government of Iran for their maltreatment and torture while in captivity.

A Monday New York Times story (not from Erdbrink and not datelined Tehran) was relegated to page 8. It opened in dubious fashion:

After four days of rare protests that shook Iran, President Hassan Rouhani tried to calm the nation on Sunday, saying that people had the right to protest and acknowledging public concerns over the economy and corruption.

This was after reports two protesters had already been killed and dozens arrested, which the paper mentions in paragraph nine. Reporters Martin Fackler and Rick Gladstone keep up the idea that the protesters are pouring into streets all across Iran because of economic grievances, with talk of the high price of eggs.

While Erdbrink’s Tuesday dispatch at last made the paper's front page and included a large photo of a protesting woman in a cloud of tear gas, the website Twitchy found the headline on Twitter ridiculous: “Iranian authorities have clamped down on Tehran after demonstrators across the country ignored calls for calm.” Erdbrink, still hedging his bets, this time blamed “pent-up economic and political frustrations” for the fifth day of protests.

Lee Smith at Tablet magazine pulled no punches: “[the paper’s] man in Tehran Thomas Erdbrink is a veteran regime mouthpiece whose official government tour guide-style dispatches recall the shameful low-point of Western media truckling to dictators: The systematic white-washing of Joseph Stalin’s monstrous crimes by Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty.”

An Erdbrink story from late November triumphantly claimed that Iran had rallied arounds its leadership, thanks to the antagonism of Donald Trump:

After years of cynicism, sneering or simply tuning out all things political, Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor.

The changing attitude, while some years in the making, can be attributed to two related factors: the election of President Trump and the growing competition with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sectarian rival, for regional dominance.

That take hasn’t aged well, to put it mildly, and this corresponding tweet looks even more ridiculous: “For many years many Iranians were cynical about their leaders, but that is changing thanks to Trump and the Saudi crown prince.”

The New York Times Co. sponsors luxury tours of Iran. “Travels from Persia” actually featuresTimes reporters as tour guides, which certainly calls into question the paper’s journalistic scrupulosity when it comes to reporting from the hostile regime.


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Iran Bias by Omission New York Times Thomas Erdbrink Hassan Rouhani
Clay Waters's picture