Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 14, 2009

IF AN ELECTION FALLS IN A FOREST.... I hardly ever rely on television for news, but I'd foolishly assumed the cable networks would be all over the developments in Iran. Indeed, it never occurred to me to think otherwise.

And why not? It's a story with huge implications for the United States and the world. It has controversy, violence, fascinating personalities, alleged corruption -- all elements that news networks tend to love. The question, I thought, wasn't whether CNN and others would be covering the developments in Iran extensively; the question was whether they'd even break for commercials.

So much for that idea.

Politico's Ben Smith had an item at 9:41 p.m. (eastern) last night:

I'm not always a Twitter evangelist, but there is just a whole lot more there right now on the riveting Iran story than there is in a shockingly vacant night on American television. (On CNN right now: A re-run of Larry King's interview with the people behind "American Chopper.")

I thought Ben was kidding about the "American Chopper" interview. He wasn't. Robert Farley had this item at 9:28 p.m.

So, I'm trying to find out something about what's going on in Iran, and on CNN I can watch a rerun of Larry King interviewing several gentlemen without shirtsleeves who apparently assemble choppers. On Fox Mike Huckabee is trying to explain why Jesus hates credit card relief. MSNBC is rerunning something about a prison in New Mexico. CNBC is evaluating whether college students should be able to afford Chanel tote bags.

Media fail.

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers wrote in with this piece about his/her frustrations yesterday.

I turned on CNN, and they were going three rounds about some idiot Republican operative in South Carolina who called Michelle Obama an ape. Nothing on Iran.

MSNBC was in the middle of one of its hour-long crime documentaries.

FNC was showing a pre-taped piece on Bernie Madoff.

In contrast, note that print reporters (newspapers, wire services, magazines, and center-left blogs) had fantastic coverage of Iranian developments throughout the day and night. I've found the New York Times' coverage to be especially strong.

The wrong part of the media industry is in trouble.

Update: Nico Pitney had a very sharp item last night, noting that while the networks, most notably CNN and MSNBC, aired some excellent reports on Iran, when it comes to the "quantity of reporting, U.S. networks do seem to be far behind other international networks." Nico backed this up with specific numbers, pulled together from TVEyes.com.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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if the job of the tv majors were covering the news, the lack of attention accorded recent events in Iran would be a scandal, but given that they dish out entertainment slop to the masses with the goal of making oodles of money, they're doing just what they're supposed to

Posted by: sjw on June 14, 2009 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

The only TV news worth watching is PBS.

Posted by: anon on June 14, 2009 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

Typical of you leftists for wanting our press to out secret "military" operations - The press should be hailed for not showing any clips of those RedStaters following Mike "Gamecock" DeWine into their C-47 for airdrops over Tehran. Ah, can't ya just hear the lovely refrains of "and we ain't gonna jump no more" as the C-47 sputters across the Atlantic? They just don't make "Real" men, no mo.

Posted by: berttheclock on June 14, 2009 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

Did an attractive blond girl go missing after the Iranian election?


I rest my case.

By the standards of cable news there is nothing "newsy worthy" about the theft of the Iranian election.

Posted by: Ron Byers on June 14, 2009 at 8:45 AM | PERMALINK

Mr Benen, I agree with you about the NYT - Far, far better than WaPo - However, may I suggest you scan The Guardian?

Posted by: berttheclock on June 14, 2009 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

I had the bad fortune of waking up early this morning, and CNN has been covering the situation non-stop for 2.5 hours, since 6:00 AM. They aired Ahmedinejad's speech in full, and are now following up. No excuse for yesterday's near blackout, but something.

Posted by: beep52 on June 14, 2009 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

Pretty fascinating. Here in Switzerland, I get CNN International, BBC World and Al Jazeera English. All three have had coverage since Friday. I wouldn't call it "wall to wall" as even Al Jazeera is running pieces on other topics. But at a minimum all three give a rundown of the latest at the top of each hour and spend at least the first 15 minutes of each news hour going over developments and return to it later in the program for analysis with reporters on the ground.

For all of that, Sullivan still has been the best source.

Posted by: Awktalk on June 14, 2009 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

don't even bother with msnbc on the weekends -- it's nonstop basic cable porn: prison docs and hour-long tributes to depraved crimiinals. and alex witless in the a.m. is utterly useless. her second story this morning was rob blago's latest embarrassment.

Posted by: linda on June 14, 2009 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

Berttheclock, I am politely presuming you're a parody. But can you or anyone say more about just what weird event you are describing? (I figure it has a real basis but I can't find a clear peg on Google etc.)

BTW a commenter at Juan Cole says the recent Lebanon election was stolen, and the semi-pro-Western Sunni faction really lost to the Hezbollah/Christian(!) coalition. Our media sure didn't report that, is there anything to it?

Posted by: Neil B ☺ on June 14, 2009 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

Neil B - In Ms Hilzoy's earlier thread, she linked to RedState - Many of the comments from, especially those of Mike Gamecock DeWine of the Charlotte Observer, called for military intervention. As I know how "eager" those typists or the far right are for real military action, as long as others do the fighting, I imagined a WWII plane departing with many of those RedState 69th Parachute Platoon Typists aboard - In fact, an embedded reporter with them asked them why they were volunteering - To a man, they mumbled it had something to do with a missing blond (Thanks, Mr Byers)

Posted by: berttheclock on June 14, 2009 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

I'm in Asia and my experience of CNN International and BBC World has been less satisfying. Perhaps the time difference? I've gotten used to CNN not giving time to major stories on weekends (eg Mumbai Massacre) but the BBC has always been reliable until recently. Their sports reporter was the anchor for a crucial half hour devoted entirely on Iran at 10am Iran time. He asked his Iran expert if she thought that Ahmadinejad would get better in his second term because he didn't have to worry about re-election.

Posted by: LanedeR on June 14, 2009 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

Ahhhh. Just exactly what is a surprise here? That CNN, MSNBC, or any of the others aren't really interested in informing the public? Or for that matter the not-so-venerable NYT or WaPo?

Propaganda for Profit, that's what it's all about, and we expect something different at our peril.

Posted by: rrk1 on June 14, 2009 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

BTW a commenter at Juan Cole says the recent Lebanon election was stolen, and the semi-pro-Western Sunni faction really lost to the Hezbollah/Christian(!) coalition. Our media sure didn't report that, is there anything to it?

The recent Lebanon election was not stolen. All Lebanese elections are rigged beforehand based on census statistics from 60 years ago which give the Christians disproportionate seats in the assembly. Everyone, including Hezbollah, has agreed to the continuation of this system (although it hurts the Shi'ites the most), so the pro-westerners won the pre-rigged election fair and square, even though the Hezbollah/Amal/Free Patriotic Movement coalition got more votes.

There's tons of systems where one side can win without getting the majority of the votes - starting with the United States, where, even if it didn't really happen in 2000, easily could have. In Britain, governments took power after the 1951 and February 1974 elections which had received fewer votes than their opponents, and, in general, governments win easy majorities despite rarely winning more than 40% of the overall vote. Election systems are set up differently, and sometimes badly, but that doesn't make an election stolen.

I've not seen any indications that the Lebanese elections were actually fraudulent, only that the conditions in which they were conducted allowed one group to win even though the other group got more votes.

Posted by: John on June 14, 2009 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

so we keep accepting the precept that corporations want us to know anything... or think.

except where to bring them the money...

Posted by: neill on June 14, 2009 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

Another thing I noticed about coverage is that the American right seemed to favor Ahmajinedad, that's just a gut feeling of mine. And why would they?

Isn't it obvious the right needs a boogyman? If a leftist (relative to Iran of course), had beaten a hard line conservative, would that somehow legitimize Obama's overtures to Muslims? The right cound't have that, could they?

And Israel? Would the support for their saber-rattling wane with a less radical Iranian president?

It seems to be that it was almost as if the right wanted the status quo in Iran to remain. Perhaps this is another reason for the lack of coverage that Steve touched upon.

Posted by: citizen_pain on June 14, 2009 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

The wrong part of the media industry is in trouble.

Truer words were ne'er spake.

'Cept maybe for the bit about "an attractive blond girl...missing." Maybe if Ahmadinejad had made a crack about Sarah Palin's daughter we'd see something about it.

Meanwhile, given our own election in 2000, I think it's safe to say that George W Bush's dream of bringing American-style democracy to the Middle East is coming to fruition. And like the 2000 results, the Neo-cons are probably loving the results in Iran.

Posted by: chrenson on June 14, 2009 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

John, thanks - I suppose Lebanon's situation is similar to our "electoral college" and similarly frustrating.

Posted by: Neil B ♪ on June 14, 2009 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting. I was watching television at around the same time and was annoyed that I couldn't get anything on Iran. My tv is usually dominated by Dora so when I had the chance to watch news, I couldn't find any. Campbell Brown had something about whether or not Obama is more popular than he is effective - drivel! And then two more stories completely uninteresting.

I guess since Iranians weren't protesting over the U.S. it just isn't as interesting.


Posted by: Memoirgirl on June 14, 2009 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps their corporate masters simply didn't know enough about the situation yet to decide which side of the story would be profitable to accept?

Posted by: rabbit on June 14, 2009 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

TV and cable are mass communication media paid for by sponsors, not by users. The sponsors demand widest possible distribution of their ads, and the TV has to broadcast shows that get very broad viewership to carry those ads and get well paid for them. Breaking foreign news is not one of those shows.

The importance of the story is irrelevant if not enough viewers will watch it to satisfy the advertisers.

So TV and cable sell advertisements instead of providing breaking news. In current economic times they fear giving up the revenue that they get from the ordinary planned shows. That's why they're not in financial trouble while the rest of the media is. As important as the Iranian story is, not enough Americans with TV sets think it is important enough to them to waste time watching it.

Posted by: Rick B on June 14, 2009 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, one network does show a great deal of "foreign" news. Have you not seen the hours of debate over at FAUX about the evils of Dijon Mustard?

Posted by: berttheclock on June 14, 2009 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

So typical of you lefties in knocking "American Chopper". Shame you missed their episode of being welcomed, very graciously, by that Bikin' Mama St Sarah into her home in Alaska. TV of the finest. Thank you, someone, out there for inventing the V-Chip.

Posted by: berttheclock on June 14, 2009 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

You would think CNN would be all over this story. It's star reporter, Christiane Amanpour, has Iranian parents, and she spent part of her childhood in Tehran.

I turned on CNN yesterday only to get Campbell Brown spend an entire hour rehashing Republican talking points about Obama. What a wasted opportunity.

Posted by: daveb99 on June 14, 2009 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

In contrast, note that print reporters (newspapers, wire services, magazines, and center-left blogs) had fantastic coverage of Iranian developments throughout the day and night. I've found the New York Times' coverage to be especially strong.

The wrong part of the media industry is in trouble..

This may be true for the US, but it is definitively not for Europe. If one were to be charitable, one could call the coverage there 'business as usual': The publicly announced Ahmadinehjad victory is there, Mussawi's refusal to accept the result is there and the fact that there are riots in the streets. Nothing much in terms of background and what might really be going on.

On national newspaper in Germany had an opinion piece online (now apparently taken down), in which Ahmadinejad's victory was essentially declared legitimate, and the opposition was sort of told 'to get over it'. The comment section to the piece was disabled because the newspaper wants comments to be moderated and and their staff can't do any moderation from Friday evening to Monday Morning. And as someone already commented, the Brittish newspapers aren't really much better.

Pathetic really.

Posted by: SRW1 on June 14, 2009 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

I know this is serious and I am shocked that even the blogs(except Huff Po) has carried a lot of news.
My first snarky thought is "been there done that, 2000 presidential elections in US".

Posted by: Diane on June 14, 2009 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

I would say that the reporting, even blogging was thin, maybe not poor, but thin. Iran is a huge country, yet all the reports are about one city, the capitol.

I'm concerned because my wife and daughter are traveling to Iran in a few weeks, so I have been hunting for news. But even the Al Jazeera website is thin, stating as facts a landslide election causing unrest.

Truth is that reporters disappear about 4 p.m. Eastern time every Friday, and what reporters don't report on doesn't happen.

Also, television reporters know of nothing that happens off camera. They don't work during the night, and the work best with "breaking" news. But guess what? Tehran is 12.5 hours off west coast time, 9.5 hours off east coast time, so it is like covering the olympics in a foreign country: networks don't do it very well.

Posted by: tomj on June 14, 2009 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

SRW1, I take it that you have not checked The Guardian on-line - They, certainly, are not taking it as "business as usual" - Read one of their several reports about the digital smuggling of information from private citizens of Iran. The government moved quickly to cut internet and phone service, so, they could control the news. The people of Iran are finding ways to circumvent this heavy handed operation.

Posted by: berttheclock on June 14, 2009 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK


I saw that the Guardian has several items online now. Did you check the time lines of these items (to th extent tey have one, the one you mentioned specifically doesn't), and did you check what they had until Sunday noon?

Posted by: SRW1 on June 14, 2009 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Does this surpris anyone who takes note of the fact that Walt Disney-TV, General Motors-TV, SumnerRedstone-TV and Murdoch-TV - the four owners of all televised media in America today - all have their news departments in the Entertainment Division???

Go watch "Network" again. And stop playing Pollyanna, Steve, it's unbecoming in a guy who I know is as smart as you are.

Posted by: TCinLA on June 14, 2009 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK


An addition: I suspect tomj's probably has a good point concerning the time zone difference's. Much of the immediate developments once the poll stations in Iran closed happens during what in the US is daytime, while Europe was fast asleep. That probably explains why so many European newspapers were caught off guard and are only now starting to catch up.

Posted by: SRW1 on June 14, 2009 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

For the person who asked how the Lebanon election was stolen (and for others who might be interested):

What Really Happened in the Lebanese Elections?

Since the Lebanese parliamentary elections on June 7, the mainstream media have declared that the results of the elections clearly show that Hizbollah and its coalition partners have suffered a “crushing defeat.” Some, led by the New York Times and cable news outlets, went even further, suggesting that the Cairo address by President Barack Obama was what made the difference, tilting the elections in favor of the pro-Western governing coalition.

This is pure fantasy, and reveals a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Lebanese politics and an ignorance of the realities on the ground.

Let us first get some facts straight. In the previous parliament, Hizbollah and its coalition partners held 58 seats to the 70 seats of the governing coalition in the 128-seat parliament. The governing coalition led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Sunni prime minister and billionaire Rafik Hariri, consists of mainly parties and groups which are considered friendly to the West and pro-Western Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia. This coalition also includes the traditional Christian Maronite parties supported by the Maronite church, such as the Phalanges and the Lebanese forces. On the other hand, the opposition coalition is led by the mainly Shiite parties, Hizbollah and Amal, in alliance with a main Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement led by former General Michel Aoun. In the regional rivalry between the U.S., Israel, and other “moderate”Arab governments on one hand, and Iran, Syria and pro-resistance movements on the other, this opposition coalition clearly supports the latter.

One of the main contentious issues in the previous parliament was the insistence of the pro-Western coalition in demanding the disarming of the resistance movement Hizbollah, ever since Israel failed to dismantle the group’s infrastructure in the 2006 summer war. So the pro-Western groups have been trying to achieve politically what Israel failed to do militarily. The pressure applied by the U.S. during the Bush administration to achieve this very goal had been relentless, triggering a confrontation that lasted over a year and culminated in the recent elections.

Electoral politics in Lebanon is at odds with democratic principles because they are based on sectarian politics. Every major religious group is allotted a certain number of seats in Parliament, based not on population but on a previous agreement reached in 1989 to end 15 years of civil war.

For instance, in the current election, the Shiites and the Sunnis had about 873,000 and 842,000 registered voters, respectively, but each group was given 27 seats.

On the other hand the Maronite Christians and the Druze had 697,000 and 186,000 registered voters, yet were allotted 34 and 8 seats respectively, far greater than their numbers would entitle them.

In addition, more than 120,000 Lebanese expatriates were paid, mainly by the Hariri clan, to fly back to Lebanon and vote. It’s estimated that more than three-quarters of them voted for the governing coalition.

With this background, how did the Lebanese actually vote?

With 52 per cent of about 3 million registered voters actually voting,

the opposition led by Hizbollah’s coalition received 55 per cent of the vote (840,000) but only 45 per cent of the seats (57). Hizbollah itself fielded only 11 candidates in deference to its coalition partners, the same number it had in the previous parliament. All of them won their seats overwhelmingly.

On the other hand, the governing coalition received 45 per cent of the vote (692,000) and 55per cent of the seats. In essence, the governing coalition won 68 seats,
while independents won 3 seats, but later joined the governing coalition for a total of 71 seats.
In other words, the make-up of the current parliament changed only by one seat from the previous one, and that only happened after the independents were enticed to join the governing coalition. Moreover, the real surprise was that Gen. Aoun’s party, the coalition partner of Hizbollah, received, according to the results announced by the Lebanese interior ministry, 52 per cent of the Christian vote, though picking up fewer seats than his Christian rivals. Only in a fantasy world would such numbers be declared “a clear repudiation of Hizbollah’s coalition program,” as the clearly biased mainstream media, particularly the NYT’s Thomas Friedman ,would have you believe.

So the real story of the elections is that the will of the Lebanese people did not carry the day and the principle of majority rule was not respected. The Hizbollah-led coalition had indeed won more votes than the pro-Western coalition by a hefty 10 per cent. When President Obama received 53 per cent of the popular vote to John McCain’s 47 per cent last November, it was declared by the media and political pundits as a crushing defeat for the Republicans and a mandate for real change.

Posted by: TCinLA on June 14, 2009 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Which is why if you really want NEWS, an astute viewer turns to BBC, CBC, etc. American News reporting is nothing more than tabloid on film. . .

Posted by: Greytdog on June 14, 2009 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

We live in northwest Ohio...like other readers, my daughter and I clicked through CNN, MSNBC and Headline News and found nothing. Fortunately our local cable company carries Al Jazeera which was providing full coverage that was non-inflamatory and comprehensive.

Posted by: Molly on June 14, 2009 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK



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