Television Documentaries and the #IranElection

Recently PBS ran a Frontline documentary from 2002 on Iran. While I applaud the effort to give some necessary background to the situation in Iran, there were some problems. Jordan Robinson wrote a letter offering some critique to the piece. I quote it below with permission:

Subject: Rebroadcast of 2002 “A Clash That’s Centuries Old” a disservice to US public

Dear Frontline Senior Editorial Team,

I just finished watching your 2002 broadcast of “A Clash That’s Centuries Old,” part of your “Terror and Tehran” series. While I appreciate your effort to inform the American public life about life in Iran and provide context to contemporary issues in the country and internationally, I was disappointed by the report for many reasons.

Much of my dismay comes from the report’s reductionist copy and narrow treatment of Iran’s history and contemporary travails. Quotes such as Elaine Sciolino’s “Belief doesn’t allow democracy” are frankly laughable. Although Ms. Sciolino has been reporting from Iran for decades and was a reporter for respected outlets such as Newsweek and the NY Times, her quote flies in the face of a serious swath of academic analysis and commentary by leading Iran scholars and those familiar with Iran’s mixture of religion and the exercise of state power.

Although Iran’s democratic institutions are limited by the very real constraints imposed by an elite class of jurists, I think it would be a mistake to characterize Iran as devoid of democracy and the Islamic legal tradition as a complete hindrance to the exercise of citizen power in informing representation and policy making. I think it’s helpful to remember that America’s high jurist class (Supreme Court) is also appointed, and limits the “free” exercise of citizen agency by declaring what is Constitutional and what is not. I don’t mean to say there is an equality between the U.S. and Iran in terms of number and quality of freedoms and political and social health, but I do think it’s necessary to provide the public with reporting that provides the adequate color to paint a fuller picture of the messiness that makes up the human experience, especially the Iranian one.

I understand that this was broadcast in 2002, one year after the attacks of 9/11. But to rebroadcast it now after all that has happened in Iran is disappointing. I say this in particular now because of the grave political consequences that happen with poorly informed foreign policy creation.

The whole clash cliche I hope will be retired soon. Although it’s a catchy and easy frame for a story, It helps no one living in such a complex world.

A poignant quote to emphasize this point comes from a piece by Peter Beamont published in The Guardian’s Comment is Free: “If I have learnt a single thing from the last 15 years covering international crises, it is how simplified or distorted depictions of events are more easily established as given truths than challenged. And how dangerously, as Iraq made clear, those false images feed into the decision-making processes of western governments.”

For the past week or so, people from across Iran’s socio-economic and religious spectrum have banded together to protest the latest election results showing the great diversity (not contradictions) of Iranian life. A fair number of articles have come out discussing the power of the images that have emerged from the protests – young and old faces seen not chanting “Death to America,” but “Death to the Dictator.” The peole struggling for a fair hearing to redress their election grievances have been humanized through tweets, blogs and videos featuring people who want to determine their own future and are emboldened and empowered enough to believe their voice and their protest means something.

The simplistic story board and copy of this report flies in the face of what we have seen over the past week or so. This report could have remained just another piece of reporting among many, but juxtaposed to the plethora of media we receive on a daily basis covering the protest movement there, this report looks more and more like a poor piece of journalism.

Jordan Robinson
Seattle, WA