Society

How Reliable is CNN's Iran Reporting?

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By Michael C. Moynihan

As I wrote on Friday, the heterodox opinion that Twitter has been an untrustworthy source of information during the Iranian uprising has fast become the orthodox view. Too much talk of a "Twitter revolution" from the Fox fembots and, like those who hated Nirvana simply because they were too popular, the blog backlash begins. So when Jon Stewart stupidly attacked CNN for running "unverified material" from YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr, it was reasonable to defend their honor considering that their reporters, like those of all Western news organizations, are at the mercy of the Iranian regime. And it should also be pointed out that they rebounded quite well from a generally subpar performance in the first days of the protests.

But while critics wring their hands about dodgy rumors spreading via social networking sites—which are usually identified as dodgy rumors by those pass them on—few people have engaged in meaningful debate about those relaying information originally "reported" by the dictatorship's media outfits.

Case in point: This weekend viewers of CNN (and readers of DailyKos, among others) were told that a bomb exploded at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, killing two worshipers and the bomber. According to whom? Why, Iranian state television, of course! On Sunday, I caught this CNN segment on the alleged bombing, hosted by a rambling, clueless anchoress called Fredricka Whitfield:

"Iran state television reports a bomb exploded at the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini, then leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution. It says three people died there, including the bomber. That's an increase from the two we reported last hour, so that latest update, three dying including the bomber."

The "latest update" had that Pravda-like detail providing a whiff of authenticity—death told ticking up from previous reports—despite no independent confirmation of the story. It took an Iranian guest, Badi Badiozamani, to challenge the suicide bomber dissidents angle:

WHITFIELD: And here you see throngs of people in the street. There have been at least three deaths, including a bomber outside the mausoleum.

BADIOZAMANI: That's questionable. We will get to that, that bombing thing.

As promised, he came back to the issue:

BADIOZAMANI: And especially about the bombing, the alleged bombing.

WHITFIELD: Yes. You are not sold on that.

BADIOZAMANI: Because we haven't seen a picture yet.

WHITFIELD: That's true.

BADIOZAMANI: Two or three hours ago.

WHITFIELD: Although, the images are being restricted in so many different ways.

BADIOZAMANI: No, no. This was the first, the news, about bombing has been coming from the government sources within Iran. So there is no restriction on them.

Here is CNN's Betty Nguyen, who at least points out that the only source reporting a bombing is Iranian state television:

And that again, state-run television there in Iran reporting that two people have been injured in a bombing at the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the father essentially of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Important information coming in out of state run TV. Again, this is government-backed television, but some of the best reports that we can get right now of what is happening on the ground.

If the regime is offering "some of the best reports we can get right now" of this "important information," perhaps CNN, which has a rather large operating budget, needs to cultivate a few more sources on the ground.

Even Iranian state television's own video, which now claims that three people suffered "minor injuries," can find no damage to the mausoleum, despite their cameraman's best efforts. While CNN is rightfully warning viewers that, with severe restrictions imposed by the government, it is relying on unverified material supplied by citizen journalists, they are nevertheless passing on "important news" ginned up by a regime fighting for survival.

Did a suicide bomber attempt to blow up the mausoleum? Probably not. If a bomb did go off, it's hardly Truther territory to suggest an attempt by Ahmadinejad's forces to delegitimize the opposition. And is Twitter the greatest source of misinformation coming from Tehran? Having sifted through a fair number of Twitter feeds from Iran, my vote still goes to either IRNA or PressTV.

But perhaps the team at the State Department can get to the bottom of this by simply asking their Iranian guests next week, when they all join together, fists unclenched, for a hotdog-scarfing competition.

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