"Good Morning America" anchor George Stephanapolous hosted the wily Iranian leader when he last visited in May to address the U.N. nuclear proliferation summit. Ironically, Iran’s quest for nuclear-weapons capability undermines the essence of the 40-year old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But that critical issue never came up. Not surprisingly, the Iranian president quickly transformed Stephanapolous from interviewer to interviewee.
“Do you think that Mrs. Clinton is a friend of Iran?” Ahmadinejad asked Stephanapolous, who had begun by asking if the Iranian leader considers the Secretary of State an enemy. For several minutes, despite the GMA anchor’s efforts to elicit a clear response, Ahmadinejad calmly responded with his own questions. “But, I’d like to ask, is Mrs. Clinton a friend of Iran, in your opinion? As an American? You know your officials.”
Stephanapolous, like TV news icons Mike Wallace, Katie Couric, Scott Pelley, Brian Williams, and Larry King and Andrea Mitchell, apparently believed an “exclusive” interview with Ahmadinejad would elicit confessions about building nuclear weapons, denying the Holocaust, supporting terrorist groups that target Americans and more.
But anyone who has experienced a Middle East market, where bargaining is the rule, is reminded when watching these interviews that the Iranians are masters of patience and negotiating. Do America’s media stars think they can achieve a breakthrough with Iran in ways that no European government, or the Obama administration, has been able to do?
Last September, while in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad appeared on CNN’s "Larry King Live." The Iranian president twisted and turned the conversation on every topic so the viewer ended up as confused as someone lost in an intricately manicured maze.
During their exchange on the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad became the interviewer, throwing questions at King, who tried to make his factual points while desperately seeking a commercial break. Satisfying CNN's sponsors trumps pressing the world's chief Holocaust denier.
It got worse. King, who made clear that he is Jewish, did not correct Ahmadinejad on historical facts that Israel’s existence is a consequence not of the Holocaust, but is rooted in Judaism and the Jewish people’s ties to the land. Even more remarkable is King did this “exclusive” interview after his experience with Ahmadinejad the previous year.
These interviews actually are not exclusive. Ahmadinejad is likely to accept any significant mainstream TV exposure in the United States. When archived on the web he gains further publicity and legitimacy.
Mike Wallace tried a different approach in 2006, flying to Tehran to interview Ahmadinejad for "60 Minutes." But Ahmadinejad had the home court advantage. He took offense at the way he was questioned in his own house!
When the veteran TV journalist begged -- Wallace’s word -- Ahmadinejad to keep his answers “concise,” the Iranian president was indignant.
"All of your questions require a book-long answer. If you want me to just finish the interview, please tell me and we can wrap up right now," said Ahmadinejad. "Do you perhaps want me to say what you want me to say?"
"No, no," said Wallace.
"If that is the case, then I ask you to please be patient," the president replied. "Maybe these days you don't have a lot of patience to spare. Maybe these are words that you don't like to hear, Mr. Wallace."
When Wallace probed about Iran providing arms to Hezbollah, the Iranian leader interrupted, asking, “Are you the representative of the Zionist regime? Or a journalist?” To which Wallace instantly responded, meekly, “I am a journalist.”
That did not deter NBC's Andrea Mitchell from visiting Tehran this week for an "exclusive" interview with Ahmadinejad in advance of his New York visit.
The U.S., as host of the U.N., is obligated to allow the Iranian president, and other undesirable tyrants, to land at New York’s JFK Airport and attend the U.N. deliberations.
But there is no obligation for any U.S. institution, though both Columbia University and the Council on Foreign Relations mistakenly gave Ahmadinejad their platforms during his visits in recent years.
Certainly, no broadcast media outlet is obligated to give Ahmadinejad a platform. Some may argue about the need to protect free speech, but that’s definitely not the issue. It’s about the Iranian leader taking advantage of our open society to propagandize.
Iran can use its own satellite TV stations – such as the English-language Press TV, the only state-sponsored Holocaust denial outfit in the world -- and web presence to promote its leader’s views. Why should our media continue to serve as the willing dupes for his rants and raves, lies and deceits?"
Before Ahmadinejad comes again, American networks should reply with a throaty “No” to any overtures from his handlers, and definitely not offer any “exclusive” interviews.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Communications.
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Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.