Yellow journalism is a style of reporting that emphasizes sensationalism over facts. This 19th century description is often referred to nowadays as fake news. One such example was demonstrated on MSNBC’s “On Assignment” program, narrated by Richard Engel. On May 25, Engel brought up unfounded allegations against a leading Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which is a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), described as Iran’s Parliament in Exile.
Instead of presenting a balanced report rich with evidence, MSNBC reached out to an infamous agent of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for two decades, as the key witness to discuss Iran’s opposition movement.
Engel tried to paint the idea of change in Iran as an American adventure, while deliberately avoiding any reference to widespread demonstrations that have been rocking the country since December 2017, including the nationwide strike by truck drivers that entered its seventh day Monday.
The reporting is clearly one sided to demonize the NCRI using sensational adjectives as bizarre, and fringe that tortures its members and describes the movement’s leader as brutal.
In his report, Engel makes no mention that the NCRI is by far the main victim of political executions in Iran. In one example, under a fatwa (a religious command) by then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as many as 30,000 political prisoners, mostly associated with the MEK, were massacred in summer 1988. (Khomeini, issued a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie on charges of blasphemy for his novel "The Satanic Verses" on Feb. 15, 1989).
(See IRAN—WHERE MASS MURDERS RULE, 2017, (NCRIUS.)) Overall, Tehran has executed over 100,000 political activists associated with the MEK.
These are important facts that cannot be left out from such a lengthy report on the group, while key accusations of “destructive cult” and financial dependency on Saudi Arabia are taken as fact by an individual named Masoud Khodabandeh, who has been in the service of the Iran’s intelligence service. These serious allegations, albeit false, have been debunked repeatedly.
While the reporting tries to insinuate, as though the Trump Administration is heading to war with Iran and the NCRI is pushing it, the realities on the ground are otherwise. The NCRI leaders have stated repeatedly that there is no need for U.S. military involvement.
Ironically, the NCRI is blamed by the Iranian regime and the Supreme Leader for playing an instrumental role in helping and leading the nationwide uprising in Iran. Indeed, the Trump Administration has cited those protests to say that it is the Iranian people who want and will bring about change. Again, no mention of large-scale strikes and protests that had escalated on the same week that MSNBC report was aired.
Engel falsely accused the MEK of the death of six American military personnel and Pentagon contractors nearly a half a century ago in Iran.
The Story Behind the Story
An independent study by the Iran Policy Committee headed by this author in 2006 confirmed the MEK’s position that it had no role in the deaths of U.S. service members in Iran. The book is entitled "Appeasing the Ayatollahs and Suppressing Democracy: U.S. Policy and the Iranian Opposition."
The same 180-page study showed that the MEK was not involved in the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979 in Iran; rather, the whole episode was engineered by the ruling clerics and the Supreme Leader first to isolate, and then suppress the opposition organizations, mainly the MEK.
On Nov. 4, 1984, the fifth anniversary of the embassy takeover, then-Chief Justice Ayatollah Abdol Karim Moussavi-Ardebili said on Tehran Radio: “[The embassy takeover] brought about the fall of the Provisional Government, the isolation of the liberals and the confusion of left wing groups and the [MEK] and exposed their real faces. As Imam Khomeini said, this revolutionary move was greater than the first revolution.”
Research for this study suggests Engel made an unsupported claim that the NCRI paid large sums of money to former U.S. officials as speaking fees. The group it is on record as saying that it has never made any payments to any American, a fact later confirmed by the U.S. Treasury Department.
As to the designation of the MEK, our study, "Appeasing the Ayatollahs and Suppressing Democracy," showed that the original 1997 designation of the group was a “goodwill gesture” to the Iranian regime as officially confirmed by the Clinton Administration. A third of the U.S. Senate and a House Majority in bipartisan letters in 1998 and 1999 rejected the designation and described the MEK as “a legitimate resistance movement.”
Counterterrorism coordinator Ambassador Dell Dailey, had called for MEK delisting in 2009, but was overruled for political reasons. So, it finally boiled down to the courts to determine the fate of the designation. In several rulings starting in 2010, courts found no evidence of terrorism by the MEK and the NCRI and gave the State Department a deadline to make a new decision, or the court would unilaterally delist the organizations.
The NCRI filed a writ of mandamus to force the Department to decide, which resulted in the Court granting the writ, compelling the State Department to revoke the NCRI designation in Sep. 2012, a couple days before the Court deadline.
MSNBC can avoid the label of practicing yellow journalism.
MSNBC hasn’t retracted the Engel story; so, MSNBC editors:
First, explain your motives for broadcasting an unbalanced “On Assignment” report, as the Iranian people call for regime change in nationwide protests in over 140 cities.
Second, bring in scholars to brief journalists, especially Richard Engel, on the merits of objective journalism.
Third, consult with Members of the House and Senate, who have signed bipartisan letters in 1998 and 1999 rejecting the designation and described the MEK as “a legitimate resistance movement.”
With such steps, MSNBC can avoid the label of practicing yellow journalism.
Prof. Raymond Tanter (@ProfRTanter) served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, Personal Representative of the Secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Tanter is on the comprehensive list of conservative writers and columnists who appear in The Wall Street Journal, Townhall.com, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Human Events, The American Spectator, and now in Newsmax. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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