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Pulpit mentality
Iranian media can break out of its endemic paralysis

May 16, 2007

Recently I wrote an article to mark the 100th edition of the on line Farsi/Persian language publication, Washington Prism. This publication, of which I am the Editor-in-Chief, is a project of an independent, non-profit Washington D.C. based Think-Tank called World Security Institute.

Although I am not much for such sentimentalities as marking anniversaries, I thought it important to write about the challenges facing an independent Farsi/Persian language publication operating within a highly political realm of a highly politicized community. Unfortunately I have come to realize that more than often the rationale behind this politicization is not a product of sound analytical expertise, but that of perceptions contingent on personal feelings towards the current ruling government of Iran.

Over the last two years we have received our fair (or unfair) share of vitriolic rants, mixed with a large amount of thoughtful feedback about our publication. We have relished the many positive comments, seriously pondered on the negatives and even implemented some of the suggestions.

What became evident in assessing the stream of commentaries was the emergence of a theme by which the role and function of Iranian media particularly in the Diaspora had been questioned.

To some it seems irresponsible, if not outright impossible, to survive for any Iranian news outlet that does not adhere to a specific agenda framed through a political attitude towards the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To this group, the time and effort required to explore commonality of Iranians in the Diaspora is sacrificed to the exposure of the chasms which separates us. Trust, it seems, is a hard-earned commodity for this developing community still recuperating from the shock of the Iranian Revolution.

Yet, to others, mere inclusion of what may be regarded as “political story” such as a simple report on passing of a legislation by the American Congress or the Islamic Majlis is an unwanted invitation to scrutiny and other peripheral issues which would derail any noble ideals the media outlet may have in addressing the desired community.      

In other words and by no means is this exclusive to the Iranian community, even an attempt at doing a few political reporting, or the choice of what is being reported defines our entire structural and psychological make up as a media outlet.

You are either supported by and/or affiliated to the Islamic regime, the American regime or the Iranian Opposition regimes. As Marshall McLuhan, the man behind the phrase “the medium is the message” would concur, it is these perceived affiliations that define any given Iranian media outlet and its message.

So what exactly is the purpose of the Iranian media? Is it important for them to be independent? And more importantly, how can they survive as independent entities?

Over the years – and by that I mean since the very early days of its existence – what I have come to admire the most about the Iranian on-line publication has been my inability to peg it for any particular ideological bend.

Jahanshah Javid created a much needed English forum for the Iranian community by adhering to a principle which I learned early on during my tenure as a producer of a network political show and have tried to use as a guiding light. It is okay to be biased, but only as long as you are fair.

Fairness or lack thereof, in the Iranian media on both sides of the border has been one of the greatest impediments in establishing a coherent and all encompassing dialogue about the future of a nation which is still struggling with its past.

For far too long the Iranian media or those targeting the Iranian community, particularly through radio and television which are still by far the most accessible forms of media, has been dominated by the voices from the past who through the narrow and antiquated prism of their outlook have cornered the market on the topic of Iran.

My recent experience as a guest commentator at a new political talk show at the Voice of America, which of course is mandated to promote the views of the United States, showed me how isolated one can feel when raising the issue of fairness in discussing the Islamic Republic of Iran. As practitioners of this functioning democracy we can not afford to confuse freedom of press with irresponsible press in the hope of notching up political scores.

I truly believe that the only way the Iranian media can break out of its endemic paralysis is to abandon the pulpit mentality with which it has been afflicted for the past three decades and start anew by first and foremost respecting its audience.  

There are signs of change out there, where by respecting the intelligence of the intended audience and dispensing with preaching and labeling practices, media outlets are becoming reliable and enjoyable channels of greater understanding between the members of our community. 

At Washington Prism we have tried hard to follow this path. Unfortunately in the case of Washington Prism the inclusion of politics in our make up, albeit in the most non-threatening form, has either been an attraction to potential sponsors (financial or otherwise) whose support is contingent on taking sides in the “Iran” debate or repulsion to other potential supporters for the fear of offending the Iranian regime.

We need to break out of this clichéd confinement if we are to mature further as a confident and relevant community. Comment

Babak Yektafar is the Editor-in-Chief of Washington Prism: Washington Prism is a division of World Security Institute, a non-profit and non-partisan media and research institute in Washington D.C.

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