Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sturgeon’s Law Hits Iran


Spiegel Online has an entertaining story about Iranians’ cultural inability to take news at face value.

With satellite dishes confiscated and foreign broadcasts jammed, Iranians try to parse as many non-governmental sources as possible. Unfortunately, according to “Censorship, Scepticism and Conspiracy Theories,” they don’t trust the professionalized Western sources any more than they do the government:

"We are in a vicious circle. With these crackdowns, more Iranian intellectuals, journalists, scholars are taking refuge with outside-based media to express themselves," says Masha'allah Shamsolva'ezin, spokesman for the Iranian Association for the Defense of Journalists. "Then they're accused of collaboration with foreign media and arrested."

The Iranian public responds, in turn, by approaching news reports with scepticism. It is a mechanism Iranians are accustomed to. The traditional Iranian social custom of taarof is a ritualized manner of offering something without actually meaning it. It's typical, for example, for taxi drivers to initially refuse payment at the end of the ride, until the passenger insists on paying. Having been raised with this quotidian variety of double-speak, Iranians are used to not taking what they are told at face value.

They don't typically restrict their skepticism to the Iranian media, though. Most Iranians that tune-in to American-funded Voice of America and lower-budget LA talk shows are well aware that those broadcasts are aiming for regime change. "None of these channels are credible. They exaggerate and stretch the truth. No one would start a revolution on the basis of what they say," says [Tehran law professor Vasij] Naderi. Iranians watch these programs not because they trust the broadcasts, but rather because they're seeking a source to balance out the Iranian state media. "Even Ayatollah Khomeini used to listen to Voice of America and Radio Israel," points out Professor [Abbas] Milani [director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford].

This leads to a high level of creativity among Iranian media consumers:

With no consensus on what's to be trusted, many Iranians tend to formulate interpretations of world events that effectively oppose the official stories offered by their government and Western media outlets. But the private analyses of most Iranians come across as little more than idiosyncratic conspiracy theories in which American power plays an outsize role. Public power, in this view, is never to be trusted and intentions are never what they seem. "Iran already has 10 or 15 nuclear bombs," reports a taxi driver; "America wants perpetual war between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries," explains an accountant; "Ahmadinejad raises the price of yogurt only so he can get credit for lowering it later," reveals a hairdresser.

It would be heartening if Iranians thought Western sources were some shining beacon of journalistic professionalism which, relatively to regional media outlets, they are. Unfortunately, Iranians treat the mainstream media an awful lot like U.S. bloggers who, like the late Theodore Sturgeon, start by assuming that 90 percent of everything is shit.

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