Behind the Lines: Ahmadinejad's media blitz, and polls apart

I don't know many journalists, myself included, who wouldn't jump at the chance to interview Ahmadinejad.

September 25, 2008 18:04
Behind the Lines: Ahmadinejad's media blitz, and polls apart

Ahmadinejad 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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As some media observers noted this week, during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's few days in New York City to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, he gave more interviews and responses to the press than Governor Sarah Palin has done since being named the Republican vice presidential candidate last month. While Palin's campaign handlers may feel she is not quite ready for full and unfettered journalistic exposure, the Iranian president showed no such hesitations in meeting the press - except, of course, when it came to Israeli reporters, including from this newspaper. There's no question that Ahmadinejad views the Western media as a useful vehicle to challenge US policy toward Iran in the field of international public opinion, to justify his nation's nuclear ambitions and further his campaign to delegitimize the existence of the state of Israel. To what degree he actually advances his goals in these appearances and interviews - or simply ends up preaching to the converted, while providing more ammunition to his critics - is difficult to say. Still, watching him this week on television and reading his print interviews left me with the distinct impression that Ahmadinejad has become more skillful and careful in presenting his positions to Western interlocutors, without actually modulating any of his views. This time around in NYC, he avoided making any laughable gaffes - like he did during his visit last year, when he asserted that there are no homosexuals in Iran - and couched his most extreme views, such as denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's destruction, in slightly more palatable ambiguous language. Regardless of that, general criticism directed against the media for giving Ahmadinejad this kind of platform is misplaced. Columbia University was rightly knocked last year for hosting him there, as were a number of Christian groups who did the same this time around. But for better or worse - or make that bad and worse - given his US trip, Ahmadinejad is too important a newsmaker not to get such extensive coverage, and I don't know many journalists, myself included, who wouldn't jump at the chance to interview him. This is not to say that every journalist should interview him, however - as became painfully clear watching CNN's Larry King this week. While King's patented soft-ball interviewing style - which mainly consists of letting his subjects have their say without being made to feel too uncomfortable - can be appropriate with certain personalities, Ahmadinejad surely isn't one of them. His lies, evasions and slanders should be forcefully challenged, a task King clearly wasn't able or willing to do. Indeed, some of the exchanges between them made me positively wince - especially, speaking of Palin, this one: KING: Mr. President, you were once a mayor. And we have a former mayor, now governor, Mrs. Palin, running for vice president. What do you think of her? Would you like to meet her? AHMADINEJAD: She wants to become the vice president? KING: Yes, I was just, you were both mayors, right? You have something in common. AHMADINEJAD: I wish that we could have talked together when we were both mayors. Riiiiiigtht; I?m sure the former mayor of Teheran, in between those busy moments plotting Israel's demise, would just love to hear about how his opposite number in Wasilla's City Hall coped with grizzly bear intrusions. I don't know what genius at CNN thought that King was the most appropriate interrogator for Ahmadinejad, but this was clearly not one of the news network's finer hours. While the Western press should, by all means, engage Iran's fanatic leader, it must only do so with the journalistic rigor and responsibility demanded when confronting someone who today surely deserves, more than any other, the title of most dangerous man in the world. THE CONTROVERSY and public debate over the impact of public opinion polling on the electoral process, sparked by the faulty exit polls last week that showed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni defeating Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz in a landslide on the day of the Kadima primary, continued to gather force this week. Arguing that such surveys ended up discouraging voters to cast their ballots in what turned out to be a close contest in which every vote counted, Israel Beiteinu MK Yoel Hasson proposed that new regulations be passed forbidding the publication of any exit polls on the day of an election. Likud MKs Gilad Erdan and Moshe Kahlon went even further, declaring they would soon introduce a bill that would ban the publications of such polls in the two weeks before general elections and party primaries. "The media creates trends and they obviously affect the voters, who lie to pollsters and don't feel comfortable revealing their real choice, and sometimes they are even discouraged by the polls and don't even bother to go and exercise their rights at the ballot box," Erdan told The Jerusalem Post. A few key points need to be made here. It's true that the media, especially in this country, give way too much emphasis and credence to polling data, often using it as a lazy substitute for real, substantive election coverage. It has also been demonstrated time and again that this society in particular, for various cultural reasons, has proven itself resistant to the kind of accurate political forecasting these surveys are supposed to provide. As it is, I think the influence of the Kadima primary polls on the final results has been exaggerated, especially by backers of the defeated Mofaz. It is just as possible that the misleading impression the polls gave of his badly trailing Livni might have as much motivated some of his supporters to get out to the voting stations as it supposedly discouraged them. Hasson's proposal strikes me as reasonable, especially if it closes the loophole involving party primaries that had exit-poll results published and broadcast even before the voting was closed. But Erdan and Kahlon's suggested bill, despite its serious intentions, goes too far. After all, it's not just the media that do polling; most candidates themselves do likewise, and make sure to release or leak the results when doing so works in their favor. Polls have their place in the democratic electoral process, and to ban their publication for such an extended period as two weeks before election day smacks way too much of press censorship. Anyway, if the polls continue to prove as unreliable as they did in the Kadima primary, the voting public should be trusted to have enough sense to stop believing in their accuracy. And if the electorate is indeed too dumb or trusting to make that judgment - well, that, too, is sometimes part of what it means to live in a democracy.

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