It is an important principle of journalism that when someone makes a statement, especially a controversial one with grave implications, the comment should be put in the fullest possible context so the reader can make an informed judgment. But that rule doesn’t seem to apply when the New York Times writes about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In a front-page story on Saturday, the Times three times (once in a sub-head and twice in the article) reported that Ahmadinejad called the World War II Holocaust of European Jews a “lie” during an annual “Quds Day” speech showing solidarity with the Palestinian people. But the Times offered no fuller context for the quote.
The White House and other U.S. officials reacted to the “lie” remark, which also was featured in other Western news accounts, with understandable outrage. However, Iran’s Press TV reported that “Ahmadinejad did not deny the Holocaust, but raised some questions about the matter, asking Western powers for a logical answer.”
Press TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying: "If the Holocaust, as you claim, is true, why don't you allow a probe into the issue?" Press TV added that Ahmadinejad was “calling the Zionist regime a symbol of lies and deception founded on ‘colonialist’ attitudes. The Iranian president also asked why Palestinians had to pay for the genocide of Jews at the hands of Europeans.”
So what did Ahmadinejad really say?
In the English-language account of the speech published on the official Web site of the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad calls the “pretext” for founding the state of Israel “a lie,” but he doesn’t spell out precisely what he means by “pretext.” In the context, the word seems to refer to the Holocaust, but arguably his reference to "a lie which relies on ... a mythical claim" could be about Biblical claims to the land of Palestine that Zionist organizations cite.
As Press TV says, Ahmadinejad frames his skeptical comments about the Holocaust within Western hostility toward the scholarship of some European and American Holocaust skeptics (often called "deniers") who dispute details such as the estimated number of six million Jews killed by the Nazis.
But some of that supposed scholarship has been widely viewed as an excuse by neo-fascists and anti-Semites to diminish the horror of the Nazi extermination campaign against Jews and other groups considered undesirable by Adolf Hitler and his German Third Reich.
If you wish to make up your own mind about Ahmadinejad’s “lie” comment, here is his office’s English-language summary of the speech, which was delivered in Farsi, the Persian language:
“President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said here Friday that the Holocaust black box should be opened.
“Addressing Tehrani Friday prayers worshipers as pre-sermon lecturer, President Ahmadinejad said, ‘Our call over the past four years has been if the Holocaust claimed by the Zionist regime and its allies is true, why they (Zionists and westerners) do not allow any research on it?’
“President Ahmadinejad said research on everything is free but Holocaust is the key to a sealed fact and black box.
“He went on questioning, ‘When the event is so much important for which a land is occupied, such a war is waged, millions of people are killed, injured and made homeless, thousands of families are ruined and the Middle East is kept under the shadow of insecurity, why the black box should not be decoded so that facts and realities are revealed to all?’
“He said Palestine is still the most important issue of the world of Islam. ‘We do believe that if war is waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is because of Zionists’ provocation. If Sudan is suppressed it is because of Zionists’ temptations. Zionists are behind all the conspiracies of the arrogance and colonialism. They do not allow the main factor of excuses for Palestine occupation be examined and surveyed.’
“He added, ‘The pretext for establishing the Zionist regime is a lie; a lie which relies on an unreliable claim, a mythical claim, and the occupation of Palestine has nothing to do with the Holocaust.’
“The Iranian Chief Executive said Iranian nation once again announced today that are standing firm in defense of Islamic Revolution aspirations and of the late Imam Khomeini.
“He said Iranian nation will never lay down the flag of dignity, pride and freedom loving.
“He then noted that the World Quds Day marks unity of Iranian nation and the world Muslims.
“President Ahmadinejad said the World Quds Day is the day of unity of the community of human beings against the corrupt and tyrannical powers.”
Though interpretations of Ahmadinejad’s words can be debated, two things appear undeniable. First, Ahmadinejad continues to make provocative statements that are offensive to many people around the world.
And second, the New York Times and other Western news organizations are failing to live up to their own principles of objectivity, apparently out of an intense animosity toward Iran’s president.
Shortly after Iran's disputed presidential election in June, a “news analysis” coauthored by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller opened up with an old joke about Ahmadinejad looking into a mirror and saying “male lice to the right, female lice to the left,” a reference to his rise from the street and his conservative Islamic religious views.
Later, the Times editors joined defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in rejecting the notion of a vote recount by Iran’s Guardian Council, which oversees elections. The Mousavi camp instead demanded an entirely new election, which they failed to get.
“Even a full recount would be suspect,” the Times wrote in an editorial. “How could anyone be sure that the ballots were valid?”
But the resistance of Mousavi and his backers to a partial or complete recount prevented the uncovering of solid evidence that might have proven that Ahmadinejad did rig the election, a point that has become conventional wisdom in the Western media but which lacks solid proof (unlike, for instance, the widespread evidence of fraud in the recent Afghan election.)
Mousavi's rigging case rests primarily on the argument that Ahmadinejad ran up large majorities in poor districts because he had distributed food and raised pay, tactics that may be criticized as the workings of "a political machine," but normally don't fall under the definition of electoral fraud. [For more on the Iranian election, see Consortiumnews.com's "Taking Sides on Iran."]
As tensions with Iran mount, it is easy for U.S. news organizations to cast aside journalistic principles in favor of looking tough and patriotic. In a similar context, when America's top enemy was Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, the Times and other major U.S. news outlets helped whip up a war fever and contributed to a political climate that equated questioning U.S. government claims with a lack of patriotism and even sympathy for Hussein.
The chief consequence of that violation of journalistic standards was an aggressive war that has left more than 4,300 U.S. soldiers dead along with estimates of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on September 19, 2009.