On Monday afternoon, I was asked to do a radio interview reacting to the visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University earlier in the day. The host asked if I thought that the Iranian media—in the face of evidence to the contrary—would simply splice together clips of Ahmadinejad’s applause lines and claim victory in the debate. I though that was a pretty safe bet to make, and that the state-run Iranian media would undoubtedly deny its listeners the truth: that the crowd actually laughed at the ridiculous pronouncements he made, and Columbia president Bollinger roasted him over a spit in his opening remarks. I also said that it didn’t matter what the Iranian media said.
It’s important to remember that despite periodic crackdowns on satellite dishes and Internet search engines, Iranians are hardly beholden to the state media for all of their news. Satellite dishes, while officially illegal, have sprouted up all over the country, (check out this picture), beaming in CNN, Fox, the BBC and other Western news channels. And as Nikki R. Keddie tells us in her book “Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution,” by late 2005 it was estimated that there were between 40,000 and 110,000 active Persian-language blogs in Iran. Obviously, these blogs are not all political—far from it, I’m sure—but the number speaks to the fact that plenty of information bounces around Iran that doesn’t come from the mouth of a state spokesman, as Mariah Blake noted in CJR back in 2004.
Aside from all that, when I said that it didn’t matter that Iranian television was essentially lying about Ahmadinejad’s visit, my larger point was that Bollinger’s remarks weren’t aimed at an Iranian audience, anyway. Ahmadinejad is already a hugely unpopular figure in Iran, as Azadeh Moaveni reported in Time this past August, and any love he gets from Iranian TV probably isn’t going to change that. Rather, Bollinger’s remarks were geared for domestic consumption, meant to be chewed over here and in Europe, in order to not let anyone forget what kind of regime we’re dealing with in Tehran. It also should be said that Bollinger’s remarks were also designed to appease his many critics here in the states, not just over the Ahmadinejad speech but over the other incidents where Jews and Muslims have clashed at Columbia in recent years. Like Bollinger though, Ahmadinejad’s remarks were aimed at American citizens, in order to try and make himself look like an intelligent, fair-minded guy. Time’s Richard Stengel said as much this morning, noting that every year during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Ahmadinejad “hones his performance for multiple audiences: in this case, the journalists and academics who can filter his speech and ideas for a wider American audience.”
Well, he failed. Actually, let me rephrase that. He got his message out there, but his ideas are so convoluted, so wrongheaded, so pathetic, that the American media recoiled in revulsion, in the process proving those who criticized Bollinger’s decision to invite Ahmadinejad shortsighted. What better way to combat idiocy than by giving it a forum to publicly implode?
Given all this, The New York Times runs a piece this morning reporting that—surprise!—the Iranian media is doing exactly what we knew they would do, spinning the Columbia visit as a win for Ahmadinejad:
Commentary, interviews and video broadcast in Iran of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia on Monday depicted a resolute leader who overcame an ambush of personal insults to present his views on topics like the Holocaust, Israel, the Palestinians and nuclear weapons, views that were described as having been well received by the audience…The program repeated scenes that showed the audience cheering Mr. Ahmadinejad, suggesting that a lot of the audience was made up of his supporters.
I’ll say it again: it doesn’t matter. Iranians are smart enough to know that their media is a government production. Nowhere is this shown more forcefully than in a September 2006 article in Der Spiegel, which shows just how little regard Iranians have for the state run television stations. What matters is how the media of the free world reacted, which shows, as Josh Marshall wrote yesterday, “that Ahmadinejad was diminished by yesterday’s events, not elevated. And America seemed bigger for not having cowered before him, as so many wanted to.”