Generating the Will to Watch in Iran


Do you remember the Iranian elections last June? The suspect results, the accusations of massive electoral fraud? How about the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who organized to protest Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his regime, resulting in swift and violent crackdowns by pro-government Basij militia? If so, it was likely due to the pointed and diligent month-long media campaign determined to expose the electoral irregularities and corruption of the Iranian presidential contest. Nico Pitney over at Huffington Post had, if not the most impressive coverage of the demontrations, certainly the most exhaustive with his tireless, nearly 24/7 liveblogging that extended well into late July. You can still find his work archived here.

Many others, similarly enthralled and shocked and hopeful, streamed regular updates for weeks on end. It was perhaps the first major test of citizen journalism – the intersection of user-generated content from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with more traditional mediums of print and television – in a transnational setting of consequence. And the results were spectacular. The ubiquity of social media tools facilitated a unique sort of omnipresence that gave outside observers access to hundreds of Iranian locations simultaneously. Even the major U.S. cable networks, generally averse to lengthy international (non-war) coverage, devoted hours upon hours to Iran despite the fact that many of their local bureaus were summarily shut down by the Iranian government almost immediately after the protests began. Cable news, along with everyone else, was caught up in the relative romance of reformers wielding social media to create irreparable cracks within a regime universally recognized as closed-off, oppressive, and belligerent. Everyone wanted in on the action and there was more than enough user-generated content to go around.

I only bring this up because the streets of Iran are once again afire. Large protests erupted on National Student Day earlier this week, creating the most violent confrontations since last summer's unrest. Thousands came out in droves on Monday, December 7, were beaten back by police, regained their composure, and resumed the protests the very next day on university campuses across the country.

This is big news, and has elicited some responses from keen observers on the foreign policy beat. Yet it has drawn significantly less coverage from major media sources in the United States, particularly on television. Why, you may ask? Are the protests any less consequential today than they were six months ago? Is a burgeoning reform movement in a state known for sponsoring terrorism any less worthy of our attention? Could it be that the United States is getting closer to reaching a diplomatic agreement with the Iranian regime over its nuclear program, thus reducing the need to highlight the reform movement as a tool to achieve U.S. strategic interests?

The answer, it seems, is "no" on all counts, so I'm betting there's something more superficial at work here. Big media, with its business model of ad revenue based upon level of consumption (viewership/readership), competes for a share of a very defined market pie. In order to increase this share, they make a calculation regarding what type of programming viewers and readers most enjoy, and how often they enjoy it. This may be why we often see an attempt by these entities to report on long-arcing, emotional narratives that lead into some sort of climax and eventual resolution. It's an appealing and satisfying construct. The initial Iranian protests after the June elections contained many of these elements, or at least the potential for them. But after it became clear that the embedded power structure remained relatively unchanged and Ahmadinejad would in fact serve a second term, the narrative that had previously rolled smoothly in one specific direction (toward another revolution) was knocked off the rails. Big media lost its hook. And that's unfortunate, since the prevalence of Iranian-made videos and "tweets" on major American news channels was surely encouraging for the demonstrators, helping to sustain their momentum even while the government arrested thousands of people – and executed an average of two per day.

The reform movement's value in the effort to create social and political change is still present, but unlike last summer, no one currently thinks that this change will occur anytime soon – especially with the possibility of new Iranian sanctions coming down the pike, which would give the hard-liners another excuse to consolidate power and expel those who would seek compromise with the West. Such uncertainty isn't all that conducive toward building a neat and linear narrative, which perhaps is a pretext to the sort of prolonged and thorough media coverage that we're currently seeing on issues such as healthcare, but not elsewhere.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I could be completely wrong about this, and I hope I am in some ways. I'd like to think that major media outlets would generally value and prioritize countrywide Iranian protests over, say, the Tiger Woods saga of the past week. But in the absence of that discretion, I'll once again have to rely upon people like the indispensable Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic, who is doing a great job aggregating news and video of the unrest in Iran.

Elections, Iran, Reform Movement