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March 13, 2020 10:14 am

Rick Steves Keeping Faith With the Mullahs, Not His Viewers

avatar by Dexter Van Zile


Demonstrators carry the Iranian flag as they gather for a rally marking the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo: Nazanin Tabatabaee / WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters.

Rick Steves, the beloved producer of travel shows for PBS, has a pretty explicit agenda for his journalism. He wants to promote empathy for people who live in other countries, especially countries that many Americans regard with fear and hostility. “I think it’s good character to know people before you bomb them,” he said to great applause before a TedX Rainier audience in Washington state in 2009.  

Steves offered this bromide to explain why he went to Iran in 2008 to produce a softball travel segment about Iran that aired on PBS stations in 2009. The way Steves tells it, he was approached by the “local people from the United Nations” (whoever they might be), who were concerned about a rush to war and the saber rattling that was going on in the US at the time. They asked him if there was anything he could do to “help calm things down.”

“I said really the only thing I could do of any consequences would be to produce a TV show on Iran,” he said. Steves told the unnamed UN officials who approached him that he was too busy to do the paperwork necessary to visit Iran, but that if they did it for him, he’d bring his camera crew to Iran, produce an hour-long show, “and get it run on public television.”

Lo and behold, the folks from the UN got the Iranian government to give Steves and his crew permission to film there. Upon arriving in the country, Steves made it perfectly clear to Iranian officials that he wasn’t there to challenge the mullahs who run the country

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“I made it very clear in my presentation to the Iranian government that we are not interested in politicizing it,” he said in a lecture he gave in 2009. “I didn’t want to deal with their funding of terrorism. I didn’t want to deal with their treatment of homosexuals or Baha’is. I didn’t want to deal with nuclear issues. I just wanted to be a travel writer and go there and understand the culture because it’s a rich culture and it’s 70 million people.”

In sum, Steves marketed himself to the mullahs as a human billboard for a country whose leaders murder gays and lesbians, brutally oppress women, and terrorize religious minorities under their control. 

And, to a large extent, he kept his promise in the PBS show — “Iran: Yesterday and Today.” To be fair, Steves told his viewers that his journalism about the country (if you can call it that) was being conducted within the constraints set for him by an ever-present handler. His goal was to “meet and talk with people whose government so exasperates America.”

“Exasperates America?” Well, that’s just obfuscation for supporting terrorist groups that have murdered Jews in Argentina and Israel and killed Americans in Lebanon and Iraq, and for promoting Holocaust denial, while at the same time calling for another Holocaust against Israel. Can’t let a little genocidal imperialistic Jew-hatred get in the way of peacemaking!

During the segment, Steves admits that Iran is not a democracy, but a theocracy — and says that, ultimately, the people are not angry at America. One woman tells Steves that there is a distance between the government and the people in the country, because politics and religion are mixed in Iran. Visiting Friday prayers at a mosque, Steves sees a flag that declares “Death to Israel,” but dismisses this image (which he admits is disturbing) as apparently resulting from “a deep-seated resentment of Western culture imposed on their world.”

To soften the image of the mullahs, Steves declares that the Zoroastrian community in Iran “worships freely.” 

Two years after the segment aired, CNN reported “that young Zoroastrians were involuntarily drafted for suicide missions in the Iranian army,” during the Iran-Iraq war, and that “[f]ailing to offer their lives on the battlefield could result in execution for treason.”

The segment closes with the all-too-predictable assurance that the people in Iran are nice, and that just like in the United States, there’s a tension between modernity and tradition, liberalism and conservativism, and secular and religious worldviews.

“Maybe we’re all just struggling to defend the moral fabric of our respective societies,” he says, suggesting that there is some equivalence between Evangelicals in the US and hard-line supporters of the mullahs in Iran.

Maybe Steves had to offer bromides like this to gain access to Iran and to protect his friends from mistreatment. 

But more than a decade later, Steves is still carrying water for the mullahs that he cut a deal with in 2008. During an October 2019 talk at a Lutheran church in Palo Alto, California, Steves joked about the suffering endured by the Baha’is in Iran.

“Jesus is a prophet and Jesus is fine and dandy, but [in Islam] Muhammed is the last prophet,” Steves said.

“Now, if you have a religion where your prophet is after 650 [C.E.] or whenever Mohammed lived … let’s say you’re a Baha’i and you consider Bahaullah your prophet, who lived in the 1800s, for you to worship him is blasphemy and you can be killed.”

“Is that nice? Not really,” he said. “But is that OK?”

“I would say yes, it is,” he said. “If you have a Muslim country that’s not a democracy, it’s a theocracy, and in your religion its blasphemous to worship somebody who comes after your guy, you get the opportunity to not allow it in your country. If you happen to be a Bahai in Iran — keep a low profile! Ha! Or leave!”

Both Steves and the Lutherans in the audience had a good chuckle at that line.

In the same talk, Steves falsely suggested that pro-Israel Jews in New York were able to stop local PBS stations from airing another segment he produced that was sympathetic to the Palestinians.

“It never aired in New York because it called Palestine Palestine,” he said.

But two PBS stations aired the show in New York when it was released in 2014.

Why exactly is PBS airing shows produced by a self-admitted billboard for the mullahs in Iran who can’t keep his facts straight?

Dexter Van Zile is the Shillman research fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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