The New York Times Publicizes Iranian Propaganda ‘Protests’ Without Disclosing Regime Role
Did the New York Times mislead its readers by falling for an Iranian propaganda stunt?
It sure looks that way.
The Times blunder began on page one of the Saturday, November 28 New York Times, with a first-day news article under four bylines: David Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Farnaz Fassihi, and Ronen Bergman. The news article, headlined “Top Iranian Scientist for Nuclear Program Is Killed in an Attack,” reported in part, “Protests erupted outside government buildings in Tehran to demand revenge, much as they did after the Jan. 3 attack that killed Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian major general who ran the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”
That such protests could simply “erupt,” in a country as lacking in political freedom as Iran, struck me as strange.
Sure enough, the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the same story suggested strongly that the “protests” had been organized by the Iranian government. Here is how the Journal put it in its news article: “Dozens of people gathered Friday evening in what appeared to be a state organized protest outside Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, during a nationwide coronavirus curfew, chanting against negotiations with the U.S. and demanding the expulsion of United Nations nuclear inspectors in retaliation for the killing.”
Other non-New York Times news outlets also made clear that activities like what the Times has described as “protest” were actually Iranian-government-sponsored rallies.
The BBC labeled its video footage of Iranians burning pictures of President Trump and President-Elect Biden, and burning American and Israeli flags, as “Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force have rallied in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, over killing of a top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.”
The Times of Israel published photographs of the rally from the French wire service AFP and noted, “The French news agency identified the students as members of the Basij, the paramilitary unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Fakrizadeh was a senior officer in the IRGC.”
Understanding that these “protesters” are Basij is the key to unlocking the reality that they aren’t actually protesters in any kind of independent, genuine, American sense. They are paid performers sent by, and part of, the Iranian national security apparatus. A New York Times article from 2009 explained how the Iranian regime was brutally quelling what were, at the time, genuine protests.
“So far, the government has deployed the Revolutionary Guards, Basij vigilante squads and special riot police officers to confront demonstrators protesting the June 12 presidential election results,” the New York Times reported back in 2009. “The government can confront demonstrators with four layers of security forces, all of them answering to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The first two rings are police officers and the Basij militia. The Basij, a paramilitary militia whose members have varying degrees of military training, is estimated to number about three million nationwide, although the government sometimes says the group has 11 million members.”
A 2015 Guardian article reporting on a scholarly book about the Basij describes the group as “Iran’s state-financed militia.” The article reports that the group has “four levels of membership, moving up from 3m regular Basij, through 1-2m active members, to cadre and special Basij who together number 200,000. The Basij is organised not just by neighbourhoods, but as students, professors, members of gilds, even of tribes: it carries out military training and surveillance, supervises public behaviour, runs businesses, educates members, and propagandises through physical space and social media. Only cadre and special members are paid, although other members receive many benefits, including cash bonuses, loans, and discounts on trips to holy cities.”
Propagandizing “through physical space” seems to be exactly what the state-staged events described by the Times entailed, though in this particular case the physical space involved was the newsprint of the New York Times. The newspaper turned itself over to the propaganda without accurately labeling it as such.
A 2018 article in Radio Farda, a US-government-sponsored radio station aimed at Iran, explains that after the Iran-Iraq war ended, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “started to use the Basij for staging propaganda events in support of the regime. For instance, when the supreme leader calls for a rally in support of the system or against Western countries, the Basijis are the first on the scene and encourage or even force others to attend.”
A 2019 article by Saeid Golkar, an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, describes the Basij as “one of the five main branches” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, “alongside the Land Force, Air Force, Navy, and Quds Force.”
It’d be one thing if the New York Times made this error in only a single sentence of a first-day breaking news article, though it is worth noting that the Wall Street Journal did avoid the error by instead describing the event as “what appeared to be a state organized protest.” But the Times has compounded the mistake, and the misleading of readers, by repeating it over and over again.
A New York Times op-ed by Barbara Slavin, which the Times also published in both simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese, was accompanied by a photograph that carried the label, “A protester holds a picture of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during a demonstration against the nuclear scientist’s killing in Tehran on Saturday.” No mention or disclosure by the Times that the “demonstration” was organized by the government, or that the protester may well have been a paid member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A front-page news article in the November 30 New York Times was accompanied by a photograph by “Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times.” The photo was labeled, “Protesters gathered outside Iran’s Parliament in Tehran on Saturday in response to the killing of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the country’s top nuclear scientist.”
A front-page news article in the November 29 New York Times was accompanied by a photograph by “Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times.” The photo was labeled, “Protesters demonstrating against the killing of a top Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran, Iran on Saturday.”
An otherwise excellent Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman about the threat of Iranian precision missiles is also illustrated with an “Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times” photo. That one is labeled, “Protesters in Iran burning pictures of Donald Trump and Joe Biden after the assassination last week of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist.”
All told, in addition to the original first-day news article, there have been at least four other instances — two in photography that accompanied news articles, and two in photography that accompanied op-eds. In each of these five cases, the New York Times referred to these “protesters” without identifying them as Basij, and without explaining whether they were paid or whether the protests were orchestrated by the Iranian government or its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Maybe the Times editors are gullible enough to believe that independent Iranian protesters — in a country under coronavirus restrictions, and where unauthorized political speech is routinely punished with torture and long prison terms — would spontaneously materialize equipped with Israeli and America flags and printed, combustible, color posters of Trump and Biden. Or maybe the New York Times editors have such a low opinion of their readers that they expect the readers to believe it. This reader, at least, does not.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.