Iran and the Shah: most of US press failed to tell it like it was

The U.S. Press and Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference, by William A. Dorman and Mansour Farhang. Berkeley: University of California Press. 272 pp. $29.95. In 1920, columnist Walter Lippmann admonished his colleagues, ``Misleading news is worse than none at all.''

Mr. Lippmann's warning is the premise of ``The U.S. Press and Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference,'' a book that can be read on three levels.

It provides a thoughtful history of Iran in the postwar era, when the United States replaced Britain as the main Western influence and turned the oil-rich Gulf nation into one of the most important client states the US has ever had.

It also dissects the press's performance during almost three decades of US involvement in Iran and its contribution to a foreign policy failure ``second only to Vietnam.''

Most interesting, however, is the analysis of the interrelationship between foreign policy and the press during the ``age of media politics,'' a period when ``the first draft of popular history is composed by mainstream journalists.''

Authors William Dorman and Mansour Farhang generally conclude, ``The case of Iran offers compelling new evidence for the contention that the press, far from fulfilling the watchdog role assigned it in democratic theory or popular imagination, is deferential rather than adversative in the foreign policy arena.

``As a result of generally uninformed and often highly ethnocentric, cold-war-oriented coverage of Iran over the years and particularly in 1978, the American public was taught many damaging lessons that may take years to unlearn.''

``The U.S. Press and Iran'' is particularly good on three crucial junctures between 1951 and 1979. The first was the CIA's involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq and reinstalled Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne - ``the first such `successful' operation in CIA history.''

Despite telltale evidence, the story was not revealed until a year later - and then in an unlikely source, The Saturday Evening Post. The CIA role, which established the basis for anti-Americanism so prevalent in the rhetoric of Tehran's theocrats today, was not picked up by the mainstream press for more than two decades.

Virtually no news outlet probed the coup or foresaw the potential impact.

The second juncture was the Shah's introduction in 1963 of a modernization plan called the ``White Revolution,'' which in turn sparked clergy-led opposition. The US press generally portrayed modernization as a ``fairy tale'' or a model for the third world and opposition to it as Marxist or religious fanaticism.

``The journalistic distortion resulted in large part from the failure to understand that what the Shah was engaged in was not progressive reform, but instead an attempt to graft bits and pieces of advanced industrial capitalism onto a preindustrial society while at the same time preserving his royal dictatorship,'' the authors explain. ``In the midst of modernization the despotic character of the Iranian monarchy became more rigid than ever.''

And the clergy's opposition was not because it was inherently antimodern - a conception still dominant in the US today - but rather because of concern about the impact of Westernization, which had become synonymous with modernization, on traditional values. Reports in the Monitor and occasional articles in magazines such as The Nation were the exception to this pattern in covering the Shah's repression and growing opposition after 1963.

After the 1973 oil embargo, the press did become more critical of the Shah, notably on human rights violations. But even after conceding that Iran was a police state, the Washington Post claimed, ``Nevertheless, the great majority of Iranians all but worship him.''

The third juncture was the 1978-79 revolution, which the authors argue ``was probably the most popular in modern history.''

Yet, again despite the evidence, the upheaval was not foreseen. The press ``had no hint that the centerpiece of US geopolitical strategy in the third world was so hollow that it would collapse in the face of an unarmed and largely peaceful challenge,'' Dorman and Farhang write.

And after it happened, the upheaval was misunderstood. American journalism saw the revolutionaries as ``given to blind faith in a profoundly irrational, antimodernist religion that appealed to man's darkest and basest instincts.... The same or similar qualities in Iranian revolutionaries which were repugnant to American journalists were ignored or transformed into virtues when the subject at hand was [Islamic] resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan.''

The authors are an interesting combination. Dorman is a professor of journalism at California State University, while Farhang was revolutionary Iran's first ambassador to the United Nations. Now a professor of politics at Bennington College, he resigned from the UN post in protest over Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's refusal to comply with UN recommendations on releasing the American hostages held in Iran between 1979 and 1981. Their views, while compatible with revisionist history of the Shah's era, will be uncomfortable reading for those conditioned by press stereotypes.

The implications of their case study are ominous for both foreign policy and the press. ``The foreign policy bureaucracy, as it is now constituted, seems remarkably incapable of the type of understanding demanded by changing conditions in the third world,'' they conclude.

And for US journalism, the authors offer a warning: ``Our argument is that the press has an important responsibility to bear if the legitimate interests of the US are to be pursued in future Irans, and future Irans there are certain to be.''

Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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