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Media Analyses





UPDATED: Rouhani Fever and CNN


An update has been added below the original story.

It is hard to imagine what would compel a serious journalist to sit at her laptop after Hassan Rouhani delivered his speech at the United Nations yesterday and type the phrase, "The Iranian president's first speech to world leaders was absent anti-Israel rhetoric."

When Associated Press national security reporter Lara Jakes wrote this passage, the Iranian president had just finished telling the General Assembly that Israel is guilty of "brutal repression," "structural violence," and "institutionalized aggression" against innocents, to the extent, Rouhani insisted, that "apartheid" is not a strong enough descriptor.

The anti-Israel rhetoric was clearly present.

It is also hard to imagine why a sober reporter would view Rouhani's interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour and conclude that Rouhani proffered "frank acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust." Even according to the most sympathetic translation, Rouhani had responded to Amanpour's question about the Holocaust by insisting, clearly and repeatedly, that he couldn't comment on the "dimensions" of Nazi atrocities against the Jews because he is not a historian. In other words, the Nazis did something bad, but he doesn't quite know what it was.

That prompted Marc Tracy to make the following analogy:

Imagine that a company or some other kind of organization with a history of believing that the world is flat appoints a new CEO who is more open to alternative beliefs about the shape of the world. "The world is not flat," he says. But he doesn't then say: "In fact, the world is a globe with a circumference of 24,901 miles." He says: "I don't know whether it is a globe. Maybe it is. Or maybe it is curved. Maybe it is jagged, like one of its many mountain ranges. Maybe it dips, like a crater. Maybe it is a series of steps hurtling through the cosmos. I am not qualified to judge."

Tracy's takeaway: You wouldn't say this person's view conforms to the known facts about the earth — and you can't say that Rouhani acknowledged the Holocaust. "It is Holocaust denial," he bluntly concluded.

Chemi Shalev noted that, according to the criteria laid out by the Holocaust History Project, "Rohani might still be considered a Holocaust-denier, albeit a much smoother one than Ahmadinejad."

And Michael Moynihan likewise concluded, "Using the definition accepted by mainstream scholars of Nazism, Rouhani is a moderate Holocaust denier."

But to New York Times reporters Mark Landler and Thomas Erdbrink, the Iranian president's rhetoric amounted to "frank acknowledgment."

There is something terribly unhealthy in journalism when reporters from two of the most prominent American news organizations feel comfortable seeing something but reporting the exact opposite. In the space between Rouhani's mouth and the journalists' pens, a powerful, distorting force managed to neutralize, and then replace, journalistic ethics and concern for the facts.

But at least in the cases of AP and The New York Times, public attention caused some slight improvement in the condition. CAMERA prompted the Associated Press to amend its copy by removing the claim that Rouhani's speech was "absent anti-Israel rhetoric" and asserting instead that the Iranian president "toned down" his language. It was a needed step away from a blatant falsehood. And perhaps as a result of negative attention directed at the New York Times on Twitter, the newspaper quietly changed the phrase "frank acknowledgment" of the Holocaust to merely "acknowledgment," thus turning a frankly terrible description into a merely terrible one.

Many other reporters at many other organizations seem to have caught Rouhani fever. But the main source of the contagion seems to be CNN. And they have a bad case.

A story on Amanpour's blog, which included an excerpt of the Rouhani interview with an English voice over, is titled "Iran's new president: Yes, the Holocaust happened." According to the voice over, Rouhani told Amanpour:

I've said before that I am not a historian and that when it comes to speaking the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn.

But Iran's Fars News Agency quickly cried foul. They insisted CNN mistranslated Rouhani, elaborating that the president never referred to the Holocaust but rather "historical events." Furthermore, they claimed, CNN inserted the word "reprehensible" although Rouhani said no such thing.

But CNN stood by its translation. An unnamed CNN source apparently told the Washington Free Beacon that it did not mistranslate the comments. And the morning after the interview was posted online, when Anderson Cooper asked Amanpour about Fars News Agency's claims, she laughed it off, saying that the claim is "piffle," adding that she would not dignify it with a comment. Indeed, she did not comment on the substance of the translation challenge.

If CNN indeed mistranslated Rouhani so dramatically, it would be a major failure of journalism. It would require a strong dose of corrective medicine. But if it had mistranslated Rouhani and allowed one of its star reporters to breezily stand by the mistranslation on the air, that might be cause for major surgery.

To be sure, there are reasons to doubt Fars' commitment to accuracy. The agency, after all, once republished an Onion piece as truth, and had reported in all seriousness that an Iranian had invented a time machine. And perhaps if it were only Fars that challenged CNN's translation, the dismissive response by Amanpour, who speaks Farsi, would be reasonable.

But other Farsi speakers, none of whom are especially aligned with Fars News Agency's world view, quickly agreed that CNN is guilty of mistranslation. On Twitter, Wall Street Journal editor Sohrab Ahmari, who speaks Farsi, insisted repeatedly that Fars's translation was accurate. His newspaper threw its weight behind that assessment, stating in an editorial, "Our independent translation of Mr. Rouhani's comments confirms that Fars, not CNN, got the Farsi right."

Arash Karami, a columnist for Al Monitor's Iran Pulse, provided his own translation, which, in contrast with the the CNN account, showed Rouhani referring to "historical events" and not "the Holocaust."

Finally, Iranian-born Ali Alfoneh, a senior researcher for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CAMERA that Karami's translation, which contrasted sharply with that provided by CNN, was essentially accurate. He also pointed out that the Farsi transcription posted on the Iranian president's website is accurate.

But Amanpour, at least, continues to stand by her translation. It is time for CNN's senior editors to forthrightly address this controversy. They need to either stand by their translation by going through word by word and showing where the word "Holocaust" appears and where the word "reprehensible" appears. Viewers deserve a straightforward answer from the network. If CNN does not disagree with Fars — or with the translations by Ahmari, Karami and Alfoneh — the public deserves a prominent, clear correction and apology.

Oct. 8 Update:

Hassan Rouhani's own translator has weighed in. "No, he did not use the word 'Holocaust,'" translator Banafsheh Keynoush tells NBC in the video embedded below.

NBC's Bob Windrem seems to gently imply at the end of the video that Amanpour, who has repeatedly stood by CNN's (mis)translation, knows enough Farsi to realize that Rouhani didn't use the word "Holocaust." This, of course, suggests that Amanpour has been intentionally deceiving her audience.


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