Growing up, I attended elementary schools in two different worlds: one a multicultural suburb in New Jersey, the other a sprawling development of prefab tenements in freshly post-Communist Czechoslovakia. The first filled me with excitement; the other, with fear.
I excelled in the Fort Lee school, looked forward to classes, even inventing extra art projects to keep myself busy in the intervals between making shoebox fish tanks and papier mache sarcophagi. The other school I entered every day with trepidation, knowing that every ink stain I made during penmanship practice, every ball I didn’t catch in phys. ed. would have its own punitive consequences.
In 2014, I sat in class at the Social Sciences Faculty in the University of Tehran suffering from the symptoms of a familiar anxiety. Sweaty palms, fluttering stomach, and shallow breathing are not conducive to learning. Instead of focusing on the contents of my mechanically scribbled notes, I was distracted by the elephants in the room, of which I saw two.
The first elephant was me. I was a foreign journalist working without official accreditation, masquerading as an Iranian Studies student while secretly sending dispatches to Tehran Bureau, which was based at that time in London. Logically, I had as much of a chance as getting my cover blown while in class as anywhere else in Iran. But listening to a professor describe the official rules of journalism, which I myself was consciously violating, felt like being a character in The Scarlet Letter.
The second was the existence of the class itself. The journalism major had only recently become available to students again; authorities had been suspending courses on and off since 2009 as part of a systematic crackdown on culture and academia, and the Social Sciences Faculty was among its main targets. Compounded with the rising number of imprisoned journalists and the closure of foreign news bureaus, the odds seemed stacked against any kind of journalism in the Islamic Republic, let alone an independent and professional one. The fact that a major in journalism still interested enough students to fill up a 30-seat classroom was inconceivable. Instead of some kind of crisis powwow, here we were having a calm—even dull—discussion about how to improve the profession.
Adding to the surrealism was the mystery of the disappearing students: Of the three journalists I interviewed on the subject, none had ever met a journalism major graduate in an Iranian newsroom. The standard practice was to learn on the job, with little or no concept of how to structure a news story, let alone the ethics of the craft.
No one seemed more aware of this paradox than the London-educated professor, who voiced his exasperation with the state of the industry quite openly.
“Your craft is to give a topic relevance by establishing the background,” he advised the students, who had been tasked with identifying errors in articles recently printed by state-run news wires and seeing what lessons could be learned from the mistakes.
There were abundant examples:
“Don’t start with attributions,” and don’t write articles that inexplicably switch from one news topic to another in the middle of the text, he continued.
“Using vey goft [a formal version of he said, she said] is not enough to establish connectivity between topics,” he said of another piece.
Also, even if you do work for a state-run news outlet in an authoritarian country, don’t just blindly reprint everything a ministry sends you. “Mehr does not have any relation to the justice ministry,” the professor said, holding a printout of a particularly lengthy and unintelligible article from Mehr News Agency. “It should not have printed something from the ministry with no news value—it’s internal business.”
“The information in the headline does not appear in the article,” the professor said of a nonsensical story from Tasnim news agency. The headline advertised the latest crackdown on social media channels but failed to offer any such information in the body of the text.
“Perhaps it’s because this article is from the countryside, and the author doesn’t understand what social media channels are,” opined one of the eight girls in the class.
“It’s a possibility,” the professor agreed. “One would expect that those working for these institutions didn’t make mistakes, that they would be professionals. But we took examples from all main news outlets and found mistakes in all of them.”
“There are many causes,” he added, “like the lack of education and the idea that journalism is easy work—that everyone who writes in Farsi can do it. Seeing that amateurs are doing it perpetuates the problem—the editor in chief of Mehr is himself unprofessional.”
It was an interesting conundrum. How to educate a professional class of journalists when the media itself—and the hacks who ran it—were setting such a poor example? The Sisyphean task fully occupied our professor, who had even invented his own infographic to explain the problem.
On the white board, he drew several circles, each suspended from its own perforated line. The lines met at a single point called “journalism.” He called it the “Pendulum Theory.”
In this horror scene, a swinging axe called Law oscillates endlessly between Freedom (to the left) and Repression (the right). In my notebook, I added a stick figure of the luckless journalist constantly trying to evade the blade, never quite reaching liberty and too often falling into the pit.
The professor traced the origin of this deadly machination to the years following the Revolution, when a brief postrevolutionary euphoria gave rise to a flurry of newspapers expressing various interpretations of the Islamic Republic’s new politics. Then came the inquisition of the Revolutionary Council, which fingered the author of any text it ruled to be “against Islamic principles.”
From there, the professor said, it became essential for a journalist to know “what to write and not to write, what to observe and not to observe, and other such developments.”
I should add that our lecturer imparted this last bit of information to a different audience. His overview of the Iranian media scene was part of my course at the Faculty of World Studies, where the professor taught the elective “Media of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Here, the entire class consisted of foreigners, which seemed to encourage the professor to speak more openly than at the social sciences faculty. Still, his lecture managed to bore my classmates: At one point the professor rattled off a whole list of accredited radio, print, and online media outlets, of which there were around 50. Even I struggled to stay alert for cryptic messaging, which he flung out like hot pieces of flatbread.
We discussed gatekeeping and agenda-setting theories, the meat of every mass communications course, analyzing the process through which the media filters out information to decide what the news is, thus constructing a version of social reality. However, the professor added darkly, “beliefs are presented in a distorted and very selective manner.”
How the news agenda is set, he continued, depends on the structure of a particular society. “In the West, the media sets the agenda. It is very powerful and whatever issue it highlights affects government policy. In Iran, it’s usually the government that sets the agenda, but this cannot be taken for granted.”
Then it was on to framing and priming, the process through which the media construct a series of frames of social reality to prime the audience to accept a certain narrative. Here, he dropped a bombshell, describing a (purely theoretical) scenario in which the Iranian state TV network has to cover an election in which the defeated opposition candidate disputes the result. (Imagine!)
“You are a journalist at IRIB. The editor tells you to prepare the news. The journalist is influenced by the editorial policy, which is to promote [the views of the state]. So he must demonstrate that elections were free and fair. In the frame, he must show viewers high participation, or high voter turnout. When you repeat the frame, you have primed the issue,” he said.
Walking through the deserted Amirabad campus after class that evening, I passed by the gates of Kooye Daneshgah, the dormitory complex where students had been killed during the protests of 1999 and brutalized in 2009. I wondered what the professor did to motivate himself to come here every day. Even if, by some miracle, he managed to elevate the level of Iranian journalism “from mission to profession,” as the textbook suggested, what was the point? At best, his students will become skilled propagandists. They will not be rewarded for original reporting—in fact, there is a good chance they will be punished. Moreover, the clear career path from J-school to internship and first reporting job is unheard of in Iran. Oddly, it is possible to earn a doctorate degree in the subject, giving rise to a scenario where a cohort of overeducated media theorists lecture to a vanishing crowd of students who never become professionals.
I thought back to the anxiety I used to feel during my own early childhood education, and how it drove me to disengage from my classroom environment. There was a disconnect between the professor and his students, between those educated and those working in journalism, between the principles being taught and the reality of a repressive media environment, between the “frames” on TV and the truth.
At the heart of this uniquely Iranian, Kafka-esque situation was fear. The biggest impediment to the professionalization of Iranian journalism is the structure of the society itself. If that isn’t reformed, journalists have little motivation to become better at their craft.
“Still, Iran has a long way to go to a free as well as a responsible press.”—Homa Katouzian, introduction to Hossein Shahidi’s From Mission to Profession (2007)