World Views
11:45 am
Thu June 6, 2013

How The Internet Is Changing Coverage Of Iran

A demonstrator holds a sign in Tehran on June 16, 2009.
A demonstrator holds a sign in Tehran on June 16, 2009.
Credit Milad Avazbeigi / Wikimedia Commons

Kelly Niknejad founded Tehran Bureau in 2008 to provide a platform for independent reporting from Iran. The Bureau, a virtual hub connecting journalists, experts, and the public, is revolutionary.

“You're not just dependent on one [government] minder who is then reporting back to the Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance,” Niknejad says. “You're in touch with people who are in different neighborhoods, who have different backgrounds, who are in different cities. You get to see what part of what they say overlaps, what doesn't, and why doesn't it overlap -- is it because it’s wrong or is it because the reality is different in this neighborhood or this city?”

Access to this kind of information has been restricted for decades.

“The Iranian government doesn't want to let anyone have a real bureau,” Niknejad says. “But the internet has created a space where you can do things in the virtual world that you can't do in the real world.”

This ability was put to the test during the violent clashes following the 2009 presidential election. As Niknejad writes in Foreign Policy:

Because we were getting out the story the government was trying fiercely to suppress, we became a target. So when firsthand accounts from protests, beatings, and chaos continued to pour in, I turned to Twitter to get the word out. It had always struck me as a modern-day telex machine. And so that's how I used it. Twitter's 140-character limit was its charm, and not really all that limiting, as it turned out: I started sending out paragraphs a sentence, and sometimes a half-sentence, at a time. Bloggers and journalists following us on the network stitched these together and began to quote these accounts on their blogs and in their publications.

Tehran Bureau’s following has continued to grow. Its popularity has allowed Niknejad to push back against what she says is the Western media’s simplistic view of the Islamic Republic.

“In American journalism you're not supposed to cover Iran or anything if you're Iranian because somehow you will not have the required objectivity, the distance to be able to do it without having an agenda,” Niknejad says. “Having Tehran Bureau was a way of fighting my way against the stream in American journalism and, of course, trying to cut through the red tape that the Iranian government has set up in order to be able to control what kind of reporting gets does from Iran.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the problem of covering the “big sexy story of the day”

When I was a journalism student, I felt that the stories I was doing when I was in New York were more nuanced and gave a more accurate picture of what was going on in Iran than what was being reported in the New York Times. And, of course, when you start digging up and trying to understand why the view is so limited, it's because you do want to maintain your access. It is because you're not just covering Iran, you're covering whatever is the big sexy story of the day and I think that really hurts journalism when you try to be all over whatever you think the story of the day is.

On the continuing importance of good journalism

A lot of people are investing in tools to generate information. What information are you generating? What are you going to tweet, or put on Facebook, or whatever gadget it is that needs fueling, without the journalism? I don't understand how that's supposed to happen, how you can put so much investment in this, in the gadgets and the bells and whistles, and not in the actual journalism.

On American exceptionalism in international news coverage

Once when I was being interviewed for a journalism job that was going to be Iran related, and they ask me, they go "Well, you're Iranian and this film's going to be about Iran. Is that going to be a problem?" I go "Who covers Washington, D.C., Iranians? No, Americans." Somehow we think that Americans have the distance, they can cover their own government objectively, but then if you want to cover something like Iran, then you can't. When we send a sports writer or journalist to cover a game, they know the game, they know the players, they know the history of it. We would never send someone who doesn't know baseball or football to cover it, but we do that when it comes to international politics, and we do that at the very highest level.

On the upcoming presidential election

They have had 4 years to make sure that what happened in 2009 doesn't happen again, so I think everyone believes that it's going to be very well choreographed, under control. The only challenge at this moment, of course anything can change at any moment and most of what happens happens very close to the actual polling date, but at this point it appears that the only possible challenge the government may be worried about is what the Ahmadinejad faction will do. Will they go away quietly and gracefully, or do they have something up their sleeve?

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Kelly Niknejad, welcome to World Views.

NIKNEJAD: Thank you, it's wonderful to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, you've done some very interesting work in Tehran with the creation of the Tehran Bureau in 2008. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Tehran Bureau does and what prompted you to begin this movement? An internet movement, an effort to try to enhance information in Tehran?

NIKNEJAD: I think the question of access is always an important one in journalism and in Iran it's vital because if you want to return to Iran you need to maintain your access by making sure you stay within an accepted realm of reporting. If you're Iranian, you're being monitored 24 hours a day, your family is a virtual hostage, so you're not going to report what's really going on in the country. And the fewer people there are there reporting from Iran, the more lopsided, or the more distorted, the view of what's going on in that country becomes. So the internet created a new space where you didn't have to be in Iran to be in touch with people. So I think a lot of people think that social media replaces on-the-ground reporting, which is not the case at all in my perspective. It's a way of putting yourself in touch with more people who are on the ground so you're not just dependent on one minder who is then reporting back to the Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance. You're in touch with people who are in different neighborhoods, who have different backgrounds, who are in different cities, and you get to see what part of what they say overlaps, what doesn't, why doesn't it overlap -- is it because this is wrong or is it because the reality is different in this neighborhood or this city? So it just seemed like the common sense thing to do. It's called the Tehran Bureau because it went back to a class I had at journalism school at Columbia. David Remnick of the New Yorker was a guest, and I asked him about his magazine's Iran coverage and he dismissed my criticism by saying "No one has a bureau in Tehran." And I go "Well, what about the AP?" and he goes "That's not a real full-fledged bureau." And it lodged in my mind that, okay, the Iranian government doesn't want to let anyone have a real bureau, but the internet has created a space where you can do things in the virtual world that you can't do in the real world. So that's where it came in. That's where the idea and the name came from. But basically, it was because I was very frustrated by both the Iranian government that doesn't let anything but propaganda get through, and also by the Western media that has a very simplistic view of Iran. And part of that is because, you know, in American journalism you're not supposed to cover Iran or anything if you're Iranian because somehow you will not have the required objectivity, the distance to be able to do it without having an agenda. So I think having Tehran Bureau was a way of fighting my way against the stream in American journalism and, of course, trying to cut through the red tape that the Iranian government has set up in order to be able to control what kind of reporting gets does from Iran.

GRILLOT: So this online news magazine, basically, that you created, you created it the year before things started heating up, if you will, in Iran. The year before Ahmadinejad's controversial reelection, the year before the attempted revolution in the streets of Tehran. Did you sense that this was coming and did this lead you to creating this news outlet, or what this just coincidental?

NIKNEJAD: No, I knew that it would be an important election, but I had no idea that what happened would happen. I don't think anybody did. But I did want to be set up to be able to cover it because I thought it would be important. Important how, I didn't know, but I knew it was important and I knew I had to do it. I was trying to do Tehran Bureau long before 2008, it's just that 2008 is when we had the presidential election in November. Obama was president. That, I think, opened the way for many changes in the world, and I had a feeling that this would also affect the Iranian presidential election in June. It actually came down to, I think I didn't do it sooner because I couldn't find the money. And then when the election was just a few months away, I thought, "Okay, I have to do it now even though I don't have the funding to do it." And that's why Tehran Bureau was started as a blog. Not to blog, but to use free software to publish stories. And it's interesting because it wasn't just because of the election, it was because when I was a journalism student, I felt that the stories I was doing when I was in New York were more nuanced and gave a more accurate picture of what was going on in Iran than what was being reported in the New York Times. And, of course, when you start digging up and trying to understand why the view is so limited, it's because you do want to maintain your access. It is because you're not just covering Iran, you're covering whatever is the big sexy story of the day and I think that really hurts journalism when you try to be all over whatever you think the story of the day is. And I think there's also this movement in  journalism to specialize and to get to know what you're reporting, which is again, something we've always had a knee-jerk reaction against. Like, if you've been in a country too long, we take you because we don't want you to become a native or we don't want you, we want someone with fresh eyes who can see things that would be interesting. So it's a way of doing journalism by taking all that into account that "okay, we can be better journalists if we do actually use people who speak the language, who know the culture, who can read the Iranian press." You do want people who have fresh eyes, who can give you a perspective that someone who lives there can't give you. You do want a scholar who has spent all these hours working on it. You want all that, and how to turn all the evidence you have into journalism is what Tehran Bureau is about. It's something that you can't really do, there's no room for, in a regular newspaper.

LANDIS: Let me ask you, how have you been able to maintain doing what you consider serious journalism even through clearly the money and public attention wants something lighter, and how do you manage to stay on track?

NIKNEJAD: I think we underestimate the public. I know you've heard this before, but we do underestimate the public. When you give them something good and interesting that they can trust, I think they're interested in it. I think, mostly, I would say thanks to FRONTLINE. They've been funding me for almost 4 years. They've made it possible for me to continue; they've made it possible for me to travel to meet our reporters, our bloggers. And now we're at the Guardian, and that's given us a platform to reach out to even more people. More people have heard of the Guardian, it's more of an international audience.

LANDIS: Can I, you mentioned in the beginning that, as an Iranian, it's very hard to cover Iran. The traditional way of covering the news is that the New York Times or the Washington Post sends out some white boy that's Harvard educated to go and do these things, but he doesn't have deep knowledge. Maybe he gains that after his second or third year in the region, but then he's pulled out and he goes someplace else. What we're witnessing now, and I see it in the coverage of Syria, is a sea change difference. It's native people who are doing most of the reporting. Now in Syria, it's Iraqis, Lebanese, there's Rania Abouzeid for Time Magazine who's gotten into Raqqa, she's been embedded with Jabhat al-Nusra, this al-Qaeda force. Same with Ghaith Abdul-Ahad who's done a number of extraordinary things, an Iraqi guy. He's embedded with these fundamentalists because he speaks the language, he knows the mentality, and he can get trusted. They have opened up a new world of journalism. Now they're not getting picked up by the major papers, though, they're not. I don't know what their salaries are, but I'm sure they're pretty small. And we seem to be in this weird new territory where journalism is depending on stringers, and sometimes you get extraordinary talent, but a lot of the time, you just get sort of generic stories because people are filing for $500 a story or $200 a story, and they're just trying to string as many stories as they can together in order to, you know, keep afloat. The general journalism is of a very low quality, but you get these stars that jump out that couldn't have existed before almost.

NIKNEJAD: I agree, I agree. I remember once when I was being interviewed for a journalism job that was going to be Iran related, and they ask me, they go "Well, you're Iranian and this film's going to be about Iran. Is that going to be a problem?" I go "Who covers Washington, D.C., Iranians? No, Americans." Somehow we think that Americans have the distance, they can cover their own government objectively, but then if you want to cover something like Iran, then you can't. When we send a sports writer or journalist to cover a game, they know the game, they know the players, they know the history of it. We would never send someone who doesn't know baseball or football to cover it, but we do that when it comes to international politics, and we do that at the very highest level, which is then something that is being emulated by the smaller papers and the agencies that don't have that kind of knowledge or even that one person who's in Iran or who has access. So it's, and I'm using Iran as an example generally, as you said, it's a very new, both exciting and strange, place for journalism to be, and I think journalists are like what people used to say about lawyers. They're very conservative and they're they're not open to change. We make the mistake of thinking that there's two extremes. One is to do journalism exactly the way that it was being done, you know, 50 years ago, and, if not, then we open ourselves up to any information that is coming through Twitter, Facebook, any social media, without vetting it, without knowing who the person is, you know, with the anonymity. There's room for really great journalism in between, and I don't know why that's not seen and no one takes advantage of it. That's what I'm trying to do, and I think that's what you're trying to do. And, for some reason, it's hard to get people to understand that. A lot of people are investing in tools to generate information. What information are you generating? What are you going to tweet, or put on Facebook, or whatever gadget it is that needs fueling, without the journalism? I don't understand how that's supposed to happen, how you can put so much investment in this, in the gadgets and the bells and whistles, and not in the actual journalism. So yeah, we are in a very strange place, and I think maybe it's because it's people who don't understand journalism, who don't do journalism, who are in charge of deciding who gets a million dollars, who gets ten thousand dollars, who gets a hundred thousand dollars, and I don't think it's being well-spent at all.

GRILLOT: So in the short time we have left, can I ask you, so that in Iran we're expecting presidential elections soon. Ahmadinejad will be leaving office. Is there any thought about what you're going to be covering here pretty soon in Iran?

NIKNEJAD: You know, they have had four years to make sure that what happened in 2009 doesn't happen again, so I think everyone believes that it's going to be very well choreographed, under control. The only challenge at this moment, of course anything can change at any moment and most of what happens happens very close to the actual polling date, but at this point it appears that the only possible challenge the government may be worried about is what the Ahmadinejad faction will do. Will they go away quietly and gracefully, or do they have something up their sleeve? That's the conventional wisdom right now. It's going to be uneventful. The potential candidates who can get vetted through the Guardian Council are not anyone anybody can get very excited about. So what is the Supreme Leader going to do to see to it that people do show up, that enough people show up so that they can project it back to the world that we have a thriving Islamic democracy. So I don't know, I think that they're probably not worried about the Green Movement at this point. And, of course, again, things change all the time. They change very quickly and they can change in unexpected ways, but at this point in time, given the landscape, that's how things look.

GRILLOT: Alright. Well, thank you so much, Kelly Niknejad for being with us today on World Views.

NIKNEJAD: Thank you.

LANDIS: Thank you.

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