Soundings

James Kirchick
The Persian Version
My 15 minutes of Iranian fame
Winter 2009

The request sounded innocent enough. “To all editors and TV stars on staff,” read the e-mail from an intern to the office-wide listserv of The New Republic, the magazine I work for. “A woman just called the office from Atlantic Television News (ATN), which is based in Denmark but has an office on K St. She is looking for someone to go on their news show Friday at 3 pm to do post-op on the VP debate.”

Two days later, I showed up at the studio, where a woman wearing a Muslim-style headscarf and the producer, another woman with a Middle Eastern–sounding name, greeted me. They led me to the green room, where one of my co-panelists, an Arab political analyst, was talking loudly on his cell phone. A homogeneous country, Denmark must be trying to impress us multicultural Americans, I presumed. Then my co-panelist finished his cell-phone conversation and asked me, “Is this your first time appearing on PressTV?”

“PressTV?” I asked. “This is PressTV?” He nodded, looking quizzical. Far from sharing my thoughts on a Scandinavian political chat show, I was about to appear on the international propaganda channel of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Founded in 2007, PressTV is the primary vehicle by which the Iranian government attempts to make its foul case to the world; the 24-hour, English-language network makes Pravda look like a bastion of objective reporting. Unable to find respected journalists to front for it abroad, PressTV has hired as hosts the likes of George Galloway, the fire-breathing British MP who reliably spouts the talking points of anti-American thugs, and Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Islamist scholar who masquerades as a moderate. Given PressTV’s ugly agenda, not to mention the producer’s subterfuge in inviting me, to say that I felt used would be an understatement. Not only are the Iranians terrorist sponsors, I thought; they’re liars as well.

Why would PressTV use deceit to get me on air? I like to think it’s because they assume that American journalists would have too much integrity to appear otherwise; that given the opportunity to appear on the Islamic Republic’s propaganda network, we’d either refuse or use the opportunity to denounce the regime as the tyranny that it is. A friend of mine had appeared with some frequency on PressTV for just that purpose, though he began to ignore its requests after the station’s website posted an essay by a Holocaust denier.

Unsure about what to do, I put in a call to a national security reporter who had once appeared on a live PressTV broadcast. As soon as he had the opportunity to talk, he demanded “the release of the following people” and read a list of Iranian political prisoners. PressTV has not invited him back. “This is what you’re going to do,” he said. “Go on your BlackBerry to the Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International website and find a list of prisoners.” I did just that and covertly scrawled a few Persian names onto a scrap of paper as the producer shuffled me from the green room to the studio.

My appearance, however, was to be taped for later broadcast. Pulling my friend’s heroic stunt would be worthless; the producer would presumably edit out any act of defiance. But I decided to take advantage of the uncomfortable situation nonetheless. The bias of the program on which I was booked—American Dream, a panel discussion about current events in the United States—became apparent early on, during a man-on-the-street-type segment in which a PressTV reporter asked Washingtonians for reactions to the vice-presidential debate. Curiously, the interviews took place at Busboys and Poets—a bohemian bookstore and café that prominently displays the collected works of Noam Chomsky, holds a speaker series featuring the likes of Tom Hayden and Amiri Baraka, and covers its walls with pictures of Gandhi and César Chavez—and the interviewees’ opinions were predictably far to the left.

Throughout the rest of the show, every gaffe of Republican candidate Sarah Palin was played, and my two co-panelists—the Arab political analyst and a liberal political science professor from George Mason University—piled on ridicule, goaded by the anchor. (Meanwhile, weirdly, the video screen hanging behind our chairs showed not Palin herself but a woman in a pantsuit sporting wire-rimmed glasses who only vaguely resembled her.) Criticizing the Democratic ticket was left to me.

That was until the program ran a clip of Democrat Joe Biden pledging that an Obama administration would use military force to prevent genocide and in cases “when a country engag[es] in harboring terrorists and will do nothing about it.” I agreed with Senator Biden, I said, and praised him for lucidly explaining a “fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine” that clearly applied to “a country obviously on everyone’s radar now, which is Iran.” The Islamic Republic is “harboring terrorists who are killing American soldiers” in Iraq and Afghanistan, I said. It supports Hamas and Hezbollah, itself responsible for the murder of 242 servicemen in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. And it is currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program while simultaneously calling for Israel’s destruction.

“There we go again with the neocons’ garbage!” interrupted the Arab analyst. “Neocons want America to fight Israel’s fights.” What followed was the predictable conspiratorial diatribe heard so often in Muslim media, interesting only in that my interlocutor had the sophistication to cite Pat Buchanan’s assertion that every American war was waged on Israel’s behalf.

Much to my surprise, the producer invited me back the day after the election for a discussion of then-president-elect Obama’s foreign policy. Could I make it to the studio in 30 minutes? I rushed over—sans tie, jacket, and shave—and found myself on a live satellite feed alongside a columnist for the Socialist Worker and a London-based spokesman for the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (which seeks the restoration of the caliphate under sharia). The spectrum of political thought on PressTV is so extreme that its right and left wind up on exactly the same page.

It was reassuring to hear my co-panelists moan that Obama was “no revolutionary” and that capitalism and warmongering would remain an integral part of American foreign policy. Throughout the discussion, a voice in my earpiece repeatedly insisted that I “interject.” When I finally did—calling the Islamist a “fascist” during a rant in which he alleged that “there were never ethnic tensions in Iraq until the U.S. invasion,” that the United States had “commit[ted] genocide against a sovereign country,” and that “freedom and liberty are dead” because of American behavior—the show’s host lectured me “not to let this noble opportunity for debate plunge into the abyss of scurrility.” I still wonder, when I remember the producer’s effort to get me to interrupt and the strangely florid rebuke from the host, whether the whole effort was a ruse to make the American guest look boorish.

Though I’d been able to shoot down a few lies that otherwise would have gone unchallenged, both of my PressTV appearances left me feeling that I’d been used for propaganda purposes. PressTV isn’t broadcast in Iran, so my verbal samizdat didn’t reach the people most in need of hearing it. In the rare event that a producer from “Atlantic Television News” calls again, I’ll inform her that I will gladly appear—when the Iranian people can watch in freedom.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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