It is conventional wisdom in the U.S. press corps that Iran’s June 12 presidential election was rigged, with the word “fraud” now sometimes appearing without the qualifier “alleged.” But a new poll of Iranians uncovered a different opinion, an overwhelming judgment that the election was legitimate.
WorldPublicOpinion.org used native Farsi speakers calling from outside Iran to interview 1,003 Iranians across the country between Aug. 27 and Sept. 10 and discovered that 81 percent said they considered Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be the legitimate president of Iran. Only 10 percent called him illegitimate, with eight percent offering no opinion.
Sixty-two percent said they had strong confidence in the election results, which showed Ahmadinejad winning by about a 2-to-1 margin, and another 21 percent said they had some confidence in the official vote count, for a total of 83 percent expressing favorable views on the election. By comparison, only 13 percent said they had little or no confidence in the results.
These 8-to-1 margins among Iranians, judging that the official election results correctly recorded Ahmadinejad’s victory, stand in marked contrast to the opinions of U.S. journalists who showed strong sympathy for the opposition street demonstrations that turned violent after the voting.
In recent weeks, some top American journalists even have started treating the allegations of voting fraud as a simple matter of fact, not of contention.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote in a Sept. 10 op-ed that “some analysts ... argue that Ahmadinejad and the Guard were continuing an internal coup that began with the fraudulent manipulation of the June 12 election and the subsequent crackdown against Iranian protesters.”
Yet, the evidence of substantial election fraud has always been thin and many of the allegations that dominated the U.S. news coverage after the June 12 vote failed to stand up to serious scrutiny.
For instance, a prevalent complaint that Ahmadinejad’s claim of victory came too fast ignored the fact that rival candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi was out with a declaration of victory before any votes were counted. The partial results showing Ahmadinejad in the lead followed hours later.
Another claim was that Mousavi would have surely won his home Azeri district handily, rather than lose it outright to Ahmadinejad, but that argument collided with a pre-election poll sponsored by the New America Foundation which had shown Ahmadinejad with a 2-to-1 lead in that area.
Even if the election tightened in the final weeks – as some Mousavi supporters contend – Ahmadinejad’s lopsided lead in Mousavi’s home territory in May undercut the notion that Azeris would automatically back their favorite son. Some Iranian analysts have noted that Ahmadinejad poured government resources into that region, explaining his apparent popularity there.
The pre-election poll’s findings – described in a Washington Post op-ed by two of its administrators, Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty – also discovered that, contrary to widespread Western impressions, Iranian youth overwhelmingly favored Ahmadinejad, that the “18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.”
Generally speaking, Mousavi’s support was concentrated among the urban middle class and the well-educated while Ahmadinejad was more the candidate of the poor – of which there are many in Iran. They have benefited from government largesse in food and other programs, and they tend to listen to the conservative clerics in the mosques.
Mousavi seemed to acknowledge this point when he released his supposed proof of the rigged election, accusing Ahmadinejad of buying votes by providing food and higher wages for the poor. At some Mousavi rallies, his supporters reportedly would chant “death to the potatoes!” in a joking reference to Ahmadinejad’s food distributions.
Yet, while passing out food and raising pay levels may be a sign of “machine politics,” such tactics are not normally associated with election fraud.
The last real hope for definitive evidence proving Ahmadinejad’s victory was fraudulent may have passed when Mousavi rejected the possibility of a recount, either random or nationwide. Instead Mousavi insisted on an entirely new election.
Mousavi’s objection to a recount drew support from the New York Times’ top brass. “Even a full recount would be suspect,” the Times wrote in an editorial. “How could anyone be sure that the ballots were valid?”
But a key purpose of a recount is that it may unearth evidence of fraud, especially if ballot-box stuffing was done chaotically, amid panic over the incumbent falling short, or if the tallies were simply fabricated without ballots to support them, as some Western observers have speculated regarding Iran.
By spurning a partial or complete recount, Mousavi suggested that his real fear may have been that he genuinely lost the election and that his only hope for a better outcome was a new election, especially if some of Iran’s powerful clerics could be persuaded to tilt their allegiance toward him.
That interpretation is supported by other findings in the new WPO poll of Iranian attitudes. Of the 87 percent who said they voted, 55 percent said they voted for Ahmadinejad and only 14 percent said they voted for Mousavi.
Asked how they would vote if a new election were called, the breakdown was 49 percent for Ahmadinejad and 8 percent for Mousavi. Twenty-six percent declined to answer, causing WPO’s director Steven Kull to say that he thus discounted “these findings on voting preference [as] not a solid basis for estimating the actual vote.”
Nevertheless, the overall results from the WPO poll suggest that Ahmadinejad remains relatively popular compared to Mousavi.
In its press release on the new poll of Iranian attitudes, WPO also didn’t play up the findings about the disputed election, focusing more on Iran’s opinions regarding U.S. President Barack Obama and the prospects for improved relations with the United States.
The findings on Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy were at the end of the press release, possibly reflecting a concern that any data favorable to the Iranian president would draw the wrath of the major U.S. news media.
Indeed, for the past several months, the U.S. news media has shown little of its professed objectivity in its coverage of Iran’s election, an echo of the mainstream U.S. media’s failure to be evenhanded in its pre-invasion reporting on Iraq and its dictator Saddam Hussein.
Shortly after Iran's 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 derogatory reference to his rise from the street and his conservative Islamic religious views.
The Times continued its pattern of taking sides on Saturday with a front-page article that three times referred to Ahmadinejad supposedly calling the World War II Holocaust that the Nazis inflicted on European Jews a “lie,” but never giving any context to the partial quote or noting that its meaning was somewhat ambiguous. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What Did Ahmadinejad Really Say?”]
While any insistence on journalistic professionalism in dealing with Ahmadinejad and Hussein are sure to prompt criticism about showing undeserved sympathy for such unsavory characters, the point is that journalists are supposed to set aside their personal feelings and let the American people make their own judgments based on balanced reporting, not slanted coverage.
A similar collapse of journalistic standards occurred in 2002 and 2003 with lopsided and inaccurate reporting about Iraq’s supposed WMD stockpiles. As the Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt later admitted, his editorials treated the existence of those stockpiles as fact, rather than a point in dispute.
“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]
You don’t say!
Yes, it is a general principle of journalism that if something’s not true, it’s better not to say that it is, especially when your false statements contributed to an aggressive war that has killed more than 4,300 American soldiers and estimates of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. (Hiatt received no punishment for publishing his Iraq falsehoods and remains in that same job today.)
Now, Iran is in the sights of America’s top editors and a similar bias is in play.
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 22, 2009.