The Media Today

A tale of two shocking stories about world leaders

May 20, 2024
In this photo provided by Moj News Agency, rescue team members search for the wreckage of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi after it crashed in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran, Monday, May 20, 2024. Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and several other officials were found dead on Monday, hours after their helicopter crashed in a foggy, mountainous region of the country’s northwest, state media reported. (Azin Haghighi, Moj News Agency via AP)

Yesterday, Iranian state media reported that a helicopter in the convoy of Ebrahim Raisi, the president, had had a “hard landing” in a mountainous area close to the country’s border with Azerbaijan. Tasnim, a news agency with ties to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reported that “a number of people with the president have managed to make telephone calls and this has raised hope that this accident may not have any casualties,” while Iran’s interior minister indicated that he had been in touch with companions of Raisi—but the latter also said that “due to the complexity of the area, communication is somewhat challenging,” and that adverse weather conditions could hamper the search effort. As rescue workers arrived in the area, state TV showed footage of them traveling, in vehicles and on foot, through thick fog. It also asked viewers to pray for the safety of Raisi and his companions.

In addition to picking up on updates from the different arms of Iran’s state media apparatus, various Western outlets sought to put the incident in context, informing readers as to Raisi’s profile—that of a hard-line conservative cleric elected to the presidency in 2021—and the possible consequences of his death, should it be confirmed. (Some analysts described Raisi as an unimpressive puppet for Iran’s true leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and thus eminently replaceable. Others noted that he has been seen as a possible successor to Khamenei; these two observations are not necessarily incompatible.) Back in Iran, Khamenei appeared on state TV to address the situation. “Everyone must pray for the health of these public servants,” he said. “The people of Iran must not be anxious or worried.” Later, the leader of Iran’s Red Crescent told state TV that aid workers had made no contact with the helicopter, dismissing rumors to the contrary; eventually, state media reported that the craft—now described as having “crashed” and being in a state of “wreckage”—had been located. Whispers that Raisi had perished surfaced in unofficial media and at least one Western outlet before the news was finally confirmed. An anchor on state TV choked up as she delivered it. Various state outlets described Raisi as a “martyr.” (Several other people also died in the crash, including Iran’s foreign minister.)

Between word of the “hard landing” and the confirmation of Raisi’s death, a noisy online conversation started to swirl around the story, replete, unsurprisingly, with plenty of mis- and disinformation. (Various viral rumors suggested Israeli involvement in the crash; a humorous suggestion that the pilot of the helicopter was a Mossad agent named “Eli Copter” appeared to fool some observers, including within Hamas.) And, while state TV played footage of some Iranians praying for Raisi before his death was announced, others pointed on social media to his legacy of brutality and censorship. (As far back as 1988, he served on a panel that ordered the executions of thousands of dissidents following the war between Iran and Iraq; as president, he oversaw the brutal repression of a wave of protests sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody, including mass arrests of journalists.) Some users openly celebrated the prospect of Raisi’s death: one post read, “Happy World Helicopter Day!”; another appeared to show people dancing while watching state TV. Iran International—a London-based independent outlet that, as I wrote recently, has been harshly threatened over its critical coverage—shared footage that it said showed people letting off fireworks inside Iran. It also published an obituary with a headline referring to Raisi as a “poorly educated cleric who blundered into a failed presidency.”

“When a major event with national security implications erupts, the Islamic Republic authorities expect all media organizations to follow a uniform, homogenous modus operandi, even by resorting to inaccuracies, so that they can oversee the discourse and engineer the public mood,” Kourosh Ziabari, a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School who wrote recently for New Lines about the state of journalism in Iran, told me in a message this morning. In this case, that involved downplaying and delaying news about the seriousness of the situation—an “anachronistic, sluggish style of reporting” of the type that can see “state media in insular societies lose the last vestiges of trust from their potential audiences, and instead, end up channeling relevance and primacy to private media or even smaller nonprofits elsewhere,” Ziabari said. “At the same time, by refusing to separate their partisan and state connections from their professional mandate, they pave the way for misinformation to proliferate far and wide”—a situation, he added, “compounded by the absence of independent media.”

Whatever media system you live under, an unexpected crisis involving the health or safety of a world leader is jarring, sit-up-and-take-notice news. In global perspective, such crises are relatively rare—but Raisi’s crash was the second to hit in less than a week following the shooting, last Wednesday, of Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia. (The adjacency of the incidents reminded me somewhat of the early days of the pandemic, when British prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized shortly before the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was rumored to have fallen gravely ill—or even to have died, at least according to TMZ.) The circumstances, of course, were very different, but the aftermath of Fico’s shooting was itself characterized by confusion as to his true condition (even if, this time, there was no literal fog) and some chaotic online discourse—including, according to Wired, a coordinated Russian campaign to pin the attack on Ukraine. Unlike Raisi, Fico is still alive. An official said over the weekend that he is “steadily approaching” a “positive prognosis.”

And Fico’s attempted assassination is itself a media story. Slovakia has a vibrant independent media sector, but in recent years, concerns have swelled around press freedom in the country, stemming, in no small part, from the 2018 murders of Ján Kuciak, a journalist who had been investigating the nexus of organized crime and politics, and his fiancée. The popular outrage over the killings forced Fico, who was prime minister at the time, to resign and helped to usher in a liberal president the following year—but rhetorical attacks on the media continued, and last year, Fico, a prolific press-basher, returned as prime minister amid a toxic political atmosphere that one senior Slovakian journalist described to me as a “circus.” Fico has since stonewalled leading independent outlets and pushed to replace the public broadcaster with a new institution under greater state control. According to Politico, one of the candidates to run it is a flat-earther.

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A video of Fico’s suspected assailant—a seventy-one-year-old amateur poet who, at least initially, was thought to have acted alone—suggested that he opposed the broadcasting overhaul and other Fico policies. (His political views otherwise appear to have been fairly incoherent.) In the aftermath of the shooting, some politicians called for calm. But various senior allies of Fico’s wasted little time in asserting that the opposition and “liberal media” had his blood on their hands. One reportedly referred to some journalists as “disgusting pigs” and threatened “changes to the media”; leading independent media figures now fear that the shooting could be used as a pretext for officials to further narrow the space for critical journalism. Already, at least one senior editor has reported receiving online threats following the shooting, in a country that is sharply polarized politically and that, the New York Times reports, has “a particularly noxious online ecosphere,” supercharged by top politicians’ virulent rhetoric.

A helicopter crash is not a shooting, and Iran is certainly not Slovakia: the former is a theocracy that, according to the latest edition of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, is the world’s fifth worst country for press freedom; the latter is a democracy that sits, still, in the top thirty of RSF’s index. Squint, though, and the information climates surrounding the crash and the shooting, in both immediate and broader ways, point to a series of related lessons. Together, they show how shocking stories about a leader’s health can be hard to follow in real time in any media climate. And if the Raisi incident suggests that state media control can never be absolute, particularly in a globalized world, the Fico incident points to ways in which censorship can grow even in democratic soil—and to how polarization can be weaponized to heighten it.

In turn, censorship can also heighten polarization, in multiple different contexts. Ziabari told me that the Iranian regime “coopting the media scene to catapult its own value system to the position of superiority” has, in part, “produced the boomerang effect of generating widespread resistance to those very values and ideologies.” When “the president of an important country with 85 million people dies and you have a sizeable segment of the population openly celebrating his death on social media, this is a sign that there are grave underlying social and historical crises at play,” he said. “Yet the public affirmation of this vengeance has been enabled by toxic media narratives that the Iranian government itself has introduced and nurtured.”

Other notable stories:

  • Black and female journalists at the Chicago Tribune are suing Alden Global Capital, the paper’s owner, alleging pay discrimination; the reporters claim, citing an independent analysis, that women are paid 10 percent less than male counterparts while Black staffers are paid the same percentage less than comparable white employees. The journalists are being represented by a lawyer who, in 2020, won a three-million-dollar settlement in a similar case brought against the LA Times (which formerly shared a corporate parent with the Tribune). Darcel Rockett, who has covered racial inequities for the Tribune, told the Post that her own experiences in-house have fallen “on deaf ears.” 
  • Late last week, CNN published a video that showed Sean Combs, the rapper known as “Diddy,” physically assaulting Cassie Ventura, his then-girlfriend, in 2016—footage that matches claims contained in a lawsuit that Ventura filed alleging a broader pattern of abuse. (The suit was settled last year.) Combs, who had denied that the incident took place, initially did not comment on CNN’s reporting, but yesterday, he broke his silence in a video posted to Instagram. “It’s so difficult to reflect on the darkest times in your life, but sometimes you gotta do that,” he said. “My behavior on that video is inexcusable.” 
  • And Alice Stewart, a CNN political commentator and former political adviser to various Republican presidential campaigns, has died following an apparent medical emergency. She was fifty-eight, and had appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s show as recently as Friday. “We always invited her to come on my show because we knew we would be a little bit smarter at the end of that conversation,” Blitzer said. “She helped our viewers better appreciate what was going on, and that’s why we will miss her so much.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.