Don’t Forget Iran

As unrest fades, important stories remain to be told

Anyone remember Iran? The “Twitter Revolution” captivated the world’s attention in the weeks after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed (and apparently fraudulent) re-election as president. But after the ruling regime, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cracked down on dissent and expelled foreign journalists, the unrest largely fell out of the news. For the week of June 29-July 5, Iran-related stories accounted for only 4 percent of the total newshole, down from 19 percent one week earlier, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Last week, the topic fell out of the top ten entirely in every medium except the Web.

There are some good reasons for the drop in attention paid to Iran, besides the endless churning of the news cycle. For one thing, the success of the crackdown means that there is simply less news, by a standard definition of that term. There aren’t massive, green-clad crowds in Tehran’s streets on a daily basis. (This also means there aren’t any new powerful images, which just about rules out television coverage.) Meanwhile, the important news that is still taking place—behind the scenes maneuvering among different factions of the nation’s clerical leadership—is beyond the core competency of the American media. And perhaps most importantly, the Western journalists who were in the country during the election’s immediate aftermath have now been expelled.

But all that being said, there are still opportunities to produce good journalism about Iran, as Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times showed Wednesday. Daraghi’s article, headlined “Supreme leader Khamenei diminished in Iranians’ eyes,” was reported from Beirut, and it offers little in the way of new information; some key material is taken from a YouTube video. But the story makes a strong case for its thesis that Khamenei actually weakened himself by intervening forcefully on Ahmadinejad’s behalf. Along the way it paints a compelling picture of the political environment in Iran, which continues to be unsettled. And while the article doesn’t get bogged down in poli-sci lingo, it forgoes the Western media’s typical emphasis on democracy to focus on what is, at the moment, the more pressing issue in Iran: the government’s legitimacy.

Daraghi’s story calls to mind Neil MacFarquhar’s excellent reporting on Iran for The New York Times last month. A former Cairo bureau chief, MacFarquhar is now based in New York, where he is the Times’s bureau chief at the United Nations. But in the weeks after the election, his work—explaining the role of the Basij militia, examining the bureaucratic source of Ahmadinejad’s political strength, noting how reformers and hard-liners competed for Islam’s mantle—was some of the most valuable produced in the mainstream media.

There are obvious limits to this style of reporting, and some of the most pressing unanswered questions—such as just how many people were killed in the post-election violence, or how many protestors are still being held in detention—will only be addressed when Western or Iranian reporters get to do some real on-the-ground digging. But as the flood of facts from Iran slows to a trickle, the need for journalists to make sense of the news is as great as ever.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.