Newsweek and its Special Guest Commentary

Iran’s public diplomacy is kicking it up a notch. News week just published a "Special Guest Commentary" written by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Shane sent an email to a few of us last night looking for comments and included a link to an interesting response from Not a Sheep. I think Not a Sheep’s commentary may be the standard reaction.

twa847hijackerandcaptain I have a few other thoughts on this. This Special Guest Commentary reminds me of another Iranian-linked media event: the hostage situation of TWA Flight 847.

Hizbollah’s hijacking of the flight 14 June 1985 put in motion a series of events you probably remember clearly if you’re old enough. The picture of the terrorist hanging out the window with the pilot as well as the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethern and the dumping of his body onto the tarmac.

What links the two events, the hijacking and Ahmadinejad’s article, is the role the media played in empowering the speaking. In the aftermath of the hijacking, ABC asked the terrorists:

"Any final words to President Reagan this morning?"

CBS put their role as conveyance and not reporter more starkly:

"We are an instrument for the hostages… We force the Administration to put their lives above policy."

This is unlike how the media reports on the U.S. government. The media saw itself as a tool of action to further its agenda, or the agenda it sees can have traction. (The latter point is indexing, but isn’t a factor here. For more on indexing, see Robert Entman.)

There is a point at which news is not news, it is propaganda, the "bad" propaganda. Ahmadinejad smartly draws on fact and sprinkles in American symbols to address his audience as he interlaces lies.

On the one hand we may argue the government has lost the "moral high ground" to defend itself. However, is losing credibility and the benefit of the doubt and the loss of the right to dispute facts. What about the media’s role?

Official government response will be nil because they will see no need to draw attention to the article. The media is also likely to carry Ahmadinejad’s themes, which takes us to the chief problem here and the link back to TWA 847.

There is no challenge to Ahmadinejad’s assertions. If the column had been written by a U.S. government spokesman, there would likely have been more analysis and dissection and refuting of points, all given prominence, likely with a on the web page of the commentary itself.

David Galula’s analysis of propaganda in counterinsurgency is applicable here as well: the opposition isn’t held to the same standard as the government. The Iranian president’s actual content notwithstanding, Newsweek may think it is simply giving a voice to somebody, but the absence of the editorial rigueur makes it clear there’s an intent to the "post."

P.S. did you read the comments posted at Newsweek in response to the article? If so, did they seem important? You know, that place that some in public diplomacy think is the best place to change minds. Well, I didn’t read them.