Having studied Iran as an American for over two decades, I have this absurd habit of evaluating the content of American reports from Iran. Like my own first travels to Iran 12 years ago, new reporters to Iran discover for themselves the aching gaps between the standard political and media refrains in America and rapidly shifting realities in Iran. Yet with a few excellent exceptions, most American reporting never gets past the obvious incongruities and paradoxes — if they even get that far. I keep hoping for something better; something more in depth; even a dim imitation of the BBC will be welcome.
I confess to having had hope for Ashleigh Banfield's recent journey to Iran. As the thickly bespectacled host of MSNBC's nightly ” Region in Conflict” she had the chance to take Americans to see Iran through an unprecedented four hours of “live” broadcasts emanating from within Iran. My hopes were inflated by her remarkable broadcasts from Syria and Jerusalem, as well as her interview with Arafat. Even more, I kidded myself, she has Canadian roots. Could there be another Peter Jennings or Robert MacNeil in the works?
Well, maybe not.
The first problem was bad timing. Because “Region in Conflict” broadcasts “live” at 9 p.m. eastern time in the U.S., the program mysteriously resorted to poor quality “videophone” transmission, ostensibly because they were not permitted to use satellites during night hours in Iran.
Beyond that surreal comedy, a second glaring problem was format. For those who “missed” it, the four hours of “Region in Conflict” broadcast from Iran were comprised roughly as follows:
— 22+% commercials
(Apparently MSNBC's corporate parents, GE & Microsoft, don't make enough money.)
— 40% “news” items from anywhere but Iran.
(There were four rather hard hitting features from Israel; only the last of which was new or interesting – focusing on Israeli Jews. If the program was going to be about Israeli views of Iran, why not just broadcast from Israel?)
— 10+% Shepherd Smith style redundant teases of actual news from Iran
(e.g., “Coming up, we'll see this amazing interview, etc. Prepare to be wowed…!” See how much we can be like ABC's 20-20 or Fox News!)
— 20- % shallow, chatty vignettes and stories from inside Iran
(Most of the vignettes featured Ashleigh Banfield opining endlessly with herself, all too often about trivia. One of my colleagues “marveled” at how she mastered the art of marching backwards into a sea of Iranian humanity, while breathlessly proclaiming to Americans that she really knows something about Iran.)
— 8 % interactions with e-mailed questions to the program.
(Here we had the last chance for Banfield to convince her viewers that watching her program “really” was an intelligent, worthwhile exercise. Really!)
Alas, analyzed coldly in terms of content, these four programs were amazingly devoid of serious substantive news from Iran. Among the lowlights, we “learned” that:
1. The U.S. Embassy is still there, and they sell some “interesting” books.
2. Ashleigh Banfield doesn't like the hejab.
3. The Khomeini shrine complex is still under construction.
4. The sermons and chants on the Revolution's anniversary were angry in tone at the U.S. (Well, fancy that!)
5. A lot of people in Iran speak English, and many were willing to express their opinions to an American TV crew. Some of these subjects liked America and even Bush; many did not; some were hesitant to talk to her… Ms. Banfield presented this “nervousness” as remarkable and revealing “news”.
6. “You can't get alcohol anywhere in Iran.” (sic)
7. “The dress code is very strict; you will go to jail if you disobey it.” According to Banfield, “We never saw one woman in Iran who didn't obey it.” Apparently, Banfield never got away from her camera crew.
8. Women are complete “second class citizens in Iran” because they ride the back of the bus “like Rosa Parks.” (Making analytical comparisons to the status of women under the Taliban or Saudi Arabia would have dulled Ashleigh's baneful axe.)
9. In four hours of broadcasts, Banfield only had one interview with any Iranian official (a “radical” member of Parliament), and Banfield castigated her for not calling for making hejab a “matter of choice.”
10. Ashleigh Banfield doesn't like Hejab.
When it was over, I sadly surmised that MSNBC's “Region in Conflict” now holds the distinction for packing the least amount of Iran content into the most amount of airtime from Iran.
In her defense, it could be said that Banfield was in Iran at a most delicate time. She complained once about her Iranian “minders”, apparently because they objected to some of the tape from Khomeini's shrine, and they insisted she keep her scarf on. Yet others might complain about the program's handlers in New York, who apparently could tolerate no positive news from Iran being uncontradicted. In any case, what a waste of an opportunity.
MSNBC's promos for Banfield proclaim that, “she's the one.” I have little idea why. Perhaps the vacuity of the boast says it all.