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January 19, 2009
PBS's friends in Iran
A recent hour of cable television revealed media bias where it doesn’t need to be, and a crying need for more fair and balanced programming.
I like Rick Steves. In his half-hour how-to-travel shows on The Travel Channel, the camera follows him around the hot spots of whatever country he’s in while he eats the local food and shows us Cool Foreign Stuff. His unpretentious, low-key style appeals to me, and I tend to believe what he says. He encourages Americans to travel abroad and appreciate foreign cultures. Politics is not usually his beat.
“Rick Steves’ Iran” is a radical departure for our man Rick: underneath its surface intent of promoting tourism lurks a political message. The one-hour PBS show filmed during a 2008 visit to the Islamic Republic follows Rick to bazaars, cafes, ancient ruins, a dusty village, and appealing spots in Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan. Everywhere he goes, he finds not just Cool Foreign Stuff, but smiling faces and warm hospitality. His person on the street moments are variations on the theme, ‘We like America’. One Iranian family even invites him into their home for a banquet.
Steves minimally acknowledges political tensions. He films inside a large mosque where a large sign reading ‘Death to Israel’ looms over praying men. He films families visiting a cemetery for war dead from the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war. However, most of his footage implies ‘Iran is a great place to visit as a tourist’ and ‘Iranians are friendly to Americans’.
Why did Rick Steves, an American, visit a country whose leader calls America ‘the Great Satan’? Why did he visit a country where the State Department warns, “American citizens may be subject to harassment and arrest while traveling”? The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and few Westerners venture to go there. The government of Iran requires all Americans who visit there to have guides.
Steves’ web site reveals the initiative for his trip came from the Seattle chapter of the United Nations Association (UNA), a not for profit United Nations affiliate “dedicated to building understanding of and support for the ideals and vital work of the UN among the American people.” The organization’s “vision” is of “a world in which humanity is spared the scourge of war, human rights are honored, the natural environment is protected, and the US is a constructive member of the UN for the well-being of all human kind.”
The “vision” sounds great, but what’s missing? See any mention of democracy, freedom, or free market capitalism? No. The UNA vision is the vision of the left.
Steves’ personal politics are clearly left. His web site has a section called “Political Activism” featuring an article entitled “The American Flag is Not a Logo for War,” describing how taking down the flag may be a “patriotic act when a ‘tyranny of the majority’ cheapens Old Glory by turning it into a logo for a political agenda.” The site links to an article by his Iranian-born executive producer Abdi Sami in the left-wing on-line magazine ‘Yes’ headlined “Prevent War in Iran.”
Steves reveals his politics influenced his choice of subject. According to his blog, he made the video because a “friend” from UNA asked him to help his group “build understanding between Iran and the US so as to defuse the tension that could be leading to war.” Steves’ blog says he hopes his video will help prevent war. He claims to be doing “no politics, just travel” but goes on to admit, “The Islamic Republic of Iran actually wanted the publicity” and “apparently my politics gave them faith in my motives.” Given the absence of diplomatic relations, travel arrangements were made through the government of Pakistan.
The content of the video reflects the fact that Iran facilitated Steves’ trip so as to promote a positive image for itself. He acknowledges the ongoing Mideast war when he finds armed soldiers guarding services at a mosque, but backs away from the subject in the video. Iran funds Hamas and Hezbollah, manufactures arms used in Iraq against Americans, and is about to become a nuclear power, but these facts are absent from the video. Steves’ blog points out Iran is willing to accept Israel after the Palestinian Authority does and claims Iranians are “terrified” when American politicians’ mention the possibility of war with them.
Steves may claim his video is “no politics, just travel” but its effect is political nonetheless, because of what he leaves out. An Iranian government ‘minder’ traveled with him, making sure he filmed only approved sites. Except for a few murals, anti-American sentiment is absent, but this may be because Steves’ handlers shielded him from it. The video shows no poverty, crime, or political dissent, either, probably for the same reason. He admits occasional delay getting permission to film, but neither the video nor the web site elaborates. If Steves shows and tells only what the Iranian government approves, is he not tacitly accepting the role of being their publicist? Is that not a political act?
Iran does not have freedom as one of its guiding principles nowadays, and Steves tiptoes lightly around that subject. His travel blog says, the “Islamic Revolution was the equivalent of a communist takeover . . . but religious.” He adds, “A creepiness that comes with a ‘big brother’ government pervades the place.” He asserts, “Civil liberties for women, religious minorities, and critics of the government are the mark of any modern, free, and sustainable democracy” and predicts Iran will “evolve” towards freedom. He quotes a local joke about so-called Iranian democracy: “You’re given lots of choices. Then we make your choice for you.”
Steves treats Islam as ‘culture’, not mentioning its negative implications for non-Muslims. His web site lists the “Five Pillars of Islam” but does not mention that radical Islam, which certainly has adherents in Iran, calls for death to infidels, a category including most Americans and all Jews. It says Iran tolerates religion that doesn’t “offend” Islam but fails to mention regime’s threat to annihilate Israel and “Zionists” everywhere.
Moral equivalence is Steves’ theme when discussing religion. He comments in his blog about a young man on the street who encourages him to read the Koran: “Why should a Muslim evangelist be any more surprising (or menacing, or annoying) than a Christian one?” My answer would be, the Muslim evangelist is more menacing because a certain percentage of Muslims think killing non-Muslims is what the Koran tells them to do, whereas there is no Christian book or sect that tells its followers to murder people. In his blog, Steves dismisses terrorism as “the recent actions of a small but attention-grabbing faction.” On the whole, he makes Islam seem like just one more Cool Foreign Thing whose ideas are no more threatening than the intricate designs of Iranian carpets or tile mosaics.
Steves dismisses Iran’s anti-Americanism to the point of indulging in it himself. His blog calls Ahmadinejad’s ‘Great Satan’ rhetoric mere “bombast” designed to win political support in his own country. He admits Iranian school children start each day chanting “hateful slogans against the Great Satan and its fifty-first state, Israel” but likens this to the Pledge of Allegiance. Steves notes Iranians express pride in traditions of modest dress, prohibitions on drug and alcohol use, and disdain for materialism but he suggests the West’s “religion is freedom . . . and materialism.”
The timing of Steves’ telecast is key. The show is running on locally programmed PBS stations between January 11 and January 23, reaching its audience just before the new Administration takes office and ushers in its new Mideast policy.
The sponsorship, content, and timing of Steves’ video amount to propaganda: At the urging of a “friend” at an internationalist political organization, with the help of governments of two foreign countries, a U.S. citizen makes a video about the more hostile of the two, to be aired on a U.S. government-supported television channel, at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy, that seeks to soften Americans’ attitudes towards the hostile country.
And it works. Comments about the video at http://www.ricksteves.com/iran/ are overwhelmingly positive. This one is typical: “It was a beautiful piece. It shows the people are about family, the religion is about love, just as ours [is].” Several viewers wrote they had tears in their eyes while watching it. I admit, the video is well made and entertaining. I’d give it four stars, were it not for its context.
Steves’ video will influence Americans, reducing public outcry if and when the new Administration announces we are once again ‘friends’ with Iran, perhaps at the expense of Israel. We know Obama plans to meet with Iran’s President and sing Kumbaya. What comes next? Will the new Administration end economic sanctions prohibiting American-Iranian trade and investment? Will it seek security for Israel, or let Iran dominate the region? Policy change is in the wind, and videos such as this one will ‘sell’ that policy to the American people.
The Iran show is reaching a wide audience. According to Steves’ web site, PBS stations in 25 states are broadcasting it. One viewer comments, “I can only hope this gets rebroadcast multiple times so that more Americans can develop a positive view of . . . [Iran] and its people.” A DVD of the show is sold on the web site for $19.95. I’m sure it will find its way into classrooms where left-leaning teachers will use it in World History classes to promote multiculturalism.
I believe Steves is entitled to his opinions, and I do not mean to attack him personally. I would not mind his bias, if he made a disclaimer, ‘This video is designed to promote my liberal views’, but there is none. Perhaps he thinks being against war isn’t a bias, but isn’t it? We conservatives dread the idea of more warfare in the Mideast, and yet, most of us don’t want ‘peace at any cost’ if it means throwing Israel under the bus. That’s the difference between our view and his.
Steves’ video would have been better if he had stuck to his intent and avoided politics altogether. Food and travel guy Anthony Bourdain makes great videos about countries all over the globe without trying to sell a political viewpoint.
Unfortunately, Steves’ video is just one of many infotainment products aimed at Americans, bending their minds into the liberal mold. Except for Fox News, sports, and a few movies, liberal values dominate the screen.
The 47 million of us who didn’t vote for Obama need more of a presence on the tube. We need ‘fair and balanced’ documentaries to counteract the liberal mush on PBS. We need our own SNL and our own Oprah and our own Rick Steves. The screen is today’s battlefield between left and right. The average voter forms opinions based on what he or she sees views, not just on the news but on entertainment shows as well. The future course of America may well depend on what’s onscreen.