Update, 7:04pm, July 23: Robert Mackey has been very gracious about engaging with the points I’ve raised in this post. Please make sure you read our exchange in the comments on the post, as well as the post itself. And many thanks to Robert for responding constructively to a critical post from me.
Robert Mackey of New York Times News Blog, The Lede, has been covering Iran-focused events in the citizen media space. He posts time-stamped updates to The Lede that excerpt from tweets and blogposts of people in Iran or outside the country who are writing about Iran. It’s an interesting experiment, a form of coverage much closer to what some bloggers and tweeters were doing at the height of the Tehran protests than to what the Times usually does. It’s also related to the work we do at Global Voices, filtering, translating and contextualizing citizen media as we amplify voices to a broader audience.
On Tuesday July 21 at 1:19pm, Mackey posted an update focused on the complexity of the Iranian online information environment and the possibility that Iranian authorities may be trying to disrupt online activities. The update goes on to report a rumor that Hossein Derakshan, imprisoned in Iran for the past eight months, is working with Iranian intelligence services. Mackey quotes Omid Habibinia, an Iranian blogger living in Switzerland, and a blog commenter, Javad Ghorbati, as the source for these rumors.
Let me offer some context. Derakshan is an extremely controversial character. He was one of the first people to blog from Iran, and is recognized as one of the main people who promoted the idea of blogging in Persian. Early in his career, Hoder (as he’s generally known) was highly critical of the Iranian government, closely involved with progressive Iranian bloggers, and prone to dramatic gestures, including travelling to Israel on his Canadian passport and blogging about the trip.
At some point after his Israel trip, Hoder became concerned that the US government was planning an attack on Iran, and worried that his online writing gave support and comfort to anti-Iranian forces. The tone of his blog changed markedly, and he began telling friends of plans to return to Iran, and his fear that he’d face arrest due to his Israel trip. He made clear to friends that he did not want a campaign for his release – especially a campaign led by Americans – as he was more concerned about potential American hostility to Iran than his own fate at the hands of Iranian authorities. This has put his friends – myself included – in an awkward position. We want to respect his wishes, but we also want to see him released from detention.
When Hoder’s politics changed, many of his old friends were upset. Some suggested that Hoder must now be cooperating with Iranian authorities and shouldn’t be trusted. When Hoder was arrested, the circumstances surrounding his arrest were very confusing – it took a long time to get confirmation from Iranian and Canadian authorities that he had, in fact, been detained. Given his changed politics, arrest didn’t seem to make much sense. This, in turn, generated more rumors – people suggested that he hadn’t been arrested but simply disappeared from view to work more closely with the government.
In other words, it’s not news that some folks on the left side of the Iranian blogosphere believe that Hoder is a spy. This isn’t a particularly good example of the point Mackey is trying to make, that the Iranian blogosphere is getting increasingly paranoid about being infiltrated – this is a rumor that has circulated since 2007. You would think that the fact that Hoder’s now been imprisoned for eight months would counterbalance this rumor. But conspiracy theorists see his long detention and the fact that President Ahmadinejad mentioned Derakshan while asking religious prosecutors to respect the rights of Roxanna Saberi as “evidence” that he must somehow be a government collaborator.
Here’s some of the context Mackey offered for the rumors he amplified:
Mr. Derakhshan mysteriously disappeared after his return to Iran from Canada in 2008. The fact that his stance had seemed to soften on Iran’s government had dismayed several of his fellow bloggers before he went missing. In 2006, he had made a point of challenging government dogma by traveling to Israel and blogging about it.
That disappearance isn’t so mysterious at this point – he was arrested. But in the context of a pair of quotes that claim that Hoder is a government agent – and no quotes that dispute this theory – suggesting that he “mysteriously disappeared” appears to support the theory that Derakshan is a secret agent, not a political prisoner.
Mackey’s update generated several sharply critical comments, including from my friend and colleague Solana Larsen, who noted that the New York Times appeared to be lending credibility to some very dangerous assertions.
Mackey has ammended his post in response to these comments, and it includes two paragraphs that suggest to me his discomfort about spreading this libelous rumor. Mackey has made ammendments to his post, acknowledging the controversy. The post contains two paragraphs (unchanged by Mackey, as he clarifies in the comments below), which I believe reflect his discomfort with amplifying a rumor which I consider to be libelous.
While there is no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Derakhshan is cooperating with the authorities in their battle against Iran’s opposition bloggers – and the people running the online campaign to free Mr. Derakhshan vehemently deny the rumor – the fact that some Iranian bloggers are again talking about this possibility seems to indicate that the “cyber army” set up by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has helped to stir up paranoia and fear in that community.
Last month we reported that a series of updates were posted on Twitter by a blogger who identified himself as a member of the Revolutionary Guard who seemed to be dedicated to finding and helping to arrest opposition protesters and bloggers. Even if Mr. Derakhshan has not defected to the side of Iran’s security forces, it is clear that some Internet-savvy people have taken the fight to suppress the opposition’s protests online.
Now, I’m not a journalist, and certainly not employed by the august New York Times, but it seems to me that when you start a sentence, “While there is no evidence to support the rumor that…” you should probably step back from your keyboard and ask yourself whether you should be writing this article.
In response, I offered my 134 characters worth of media criticism: “While there is no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Mackey of the NYTimes manufactures stories, it IS being discussed on Twitter.” My friend Quinn Norton offered a similar, but funnier critique: “Also, I heard a rumor that NYT editorial turns into lizards at night and eats the janitorial staff. Now you have too.”
Her tweet linked to a post by David Steven, titled “The Paper of Rumor”, who feels strongly that Mackey is out of line:
Now it’s possible that Hoder has agreed to cooperate – perhaps under torture. Maybe, he even did a deal before he went home. Perhaps, too, the Times’ editor, Bill Keller, is still shagging his reporters. Point is we don’t know whether any of these assertions are true.
You have to hand it to the cowardly shits at the Times, though. If you’re going to libel someone, it makes sense to do it when your target is locked away in a jail cell. Then you can publish whatever the hell you like.
Friend and colleague Jillian York thinks Steven (and I) are taking aim at the wrong guy – we should be criticizing the bloggers spreading these claims: “Why are we blaming Mackey – a journalist with no real connection to or experience with Iran – and not the blogger he quoted.”
She’s got a point. But I think there are good reasons to criticize Mackey in this case.
Technorati ranks The Lede as the 83rd most popular blog they track. Habibinia’s blog isn’t ranked – Technorati sees only six blog links to it. In other words, The Lede is spreading Habibinia’s theory to a much larger audience. It’s also putting it under the New York Times banner. We can argue about whether Times blogs should be read the same way as news articles – they shouldn’t – but it’s certainly a concern that people will read something published by a Times employee on a New York Times website as having a level of credibility that most blogs don’t.
With that power to amplify and legitimate comes responsibility. We think a lot about this issue at Global Voices, as much of what we do involves amplifying voices. When we do our job well, we select a balance of voices, not just one perspective. We offer context that might help to explain why bloggers are putting forth one opinion or another. We don’t always get it right – it’s hard, and especially hard to do quickly. It’s a form of journalism – it requires journalistic values like fairness and transparency applied to a field – citizen media – that isn’t always journalistic. As I mentioned above, I don’t think Mackey does very well here at providing appropriate context, in providing a balanced perspective, or even in breaking an interesting story – instead, he gives credibility to a rumor that’s best understood in the context of Derakshan’s complex history, not the current protests.
It’s fascinating to see the New York Times needing to wrestle with the same questions we have to deal with at Global Voices. I’m glad they’re taking citizen media seriously enough to be reporting on it, but hope they’ll do a better job in wrestling with the complexity of these sorts of stories in the future.