I was on Al Jazeera's "The Stream" today along with Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, the co-creators/hosts/producers of Parazit, a satirical political commentary program which has been broadcast on the U.S. government-funded Voice of America since late 2010. The discussion was lively and there was a lot more that I had wanted to say but didn't get the chance.
I could certainly dissect what they said and what I said, where we agree and where we differ. But rather than do all that, I'll just post the video. And below it, show some of the classy comments from the Parazit Facebook page. But that's all. For now.
November 19, 2011- The comments on the Parazit Facebook page (and also over at YouTube) keep getting classier. My favorites are the ones that (1) accuse me of being a paid agent of the Islamic Republic and (2) tell me to shut the fuck up/go fuck myself/go to hell/set fire to myself/blow myself up and other assorted activities.
One of the more interesting things I've learned since doing this show is that, unless you think Parazit is the greatest thing ever and don't care at all that they are funded by the U.S. government, you are not only an apologist for the Iranian government but also a fundamentalist Muslim. I didn't realize the choices were that stark, but luckily some Parazit fans have clued me in. Thanks guys.
Here's a hypothetical:
Two ex-patriate Americans living in Tehran work for PressTV and start an English-language show, which is then picked up by PressTV (where they already work), and which - along with Yakov Smirnoff-level comedy coupled with Benny Hill-esque slapstick - relentlessly (and rightfully) criticizes the U.S. government, makes fun of social and cultural mores, and mocks U.S. politicians and policy. Additionally, everything on the show uncritically echoes Iranian foreign policy and the official perspective on American imperialism, war crimes, unconditional support for Zionism, and blatant hypocrisy. Images of Troy Davis, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Rodney King, torture at Bagram and Guantanamo, civilian victims of drone strikes, police abuse at Occupy protests around the country are ubiquitous and the commentary on domestic spying, a two-tiered justice system, the treatment of whistleblowers, the exploding prison population, deportation of immigrants, corporate-controlled media, government lobbying, racial and gender inequality, and access to healthcare and social services is scathing.
This show is then broadcast into the United States. When criticized for being part of the Iranian state-run media, the creators of the show cry foul and insist they are given full editorial control over their show and that no one tells them what to write or say. They claim to be critical of the Iranian government, but give deferential, fawning interviews to government officials and make hardly any mention of Iranian politics on their own show. When asked why they avoid Iranian domestic problems and human rights violations of the Islamic Republic and accused of double-standards, they dismiss the allegations saying, "Hey, our show isn't about that stuff! It's about the United States!"
Now imagine the Iranian government has, for 30 years, tried to foment regime change in the United States (after seeing an Iranian-backed dictatorship fall at the hands of the American people) by supporting and arming a neighboring country in a war against the U.S. (and giving it biological and chemical weapons to use against American citizens), funding armed opposition groups to commit acts of terrorism against the U.S., consistently threatening to bomb the U.S. unless it gives up certain inalienable national rights, among other things.
Even if all the information of the program was well-documented and its content entertaining, do you think the show would have a credibility problem?
November 20, 2011 - Some of the comments floating around about the show have noted the hypocrisy of Al Jazeera, a Qatari state-funded media outlet, addressing the issue of U.S.-funded Voice of America. This is indeed an interesting point and one that could be presented to Al Jazeera itself. To be clear, I was the only person on that program not in some way receiving payment - partially or completely - from a government.
But more importantly, the charge rests heavily on a false equivalence between the U.S. government and the Qatari government. Each government, like any government, has its own agenda, but to present the two as equally powerful and equate their motives is disingenuous. This is not to say, again, that the question of impartiality or bias isn't a valid one - it absolutely is - but there are certainly distinctions between Al Jazeera and Voice of America which should be considered.
Al Jazeera's page on Wikipedia notes, "Following the initial grant [of $137 million] from the Emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera had aimed to become self-sufficient through advertising by 2001, but when this failed to occur, the Emir agreed to several consecutive loans on a year-by-year basis ($30 million in 2004, according to Arnaud de Borchgrave). Other major sources of income include advertising, cable subscription fees, broadcasting deals with other companies, and sale of footage. In 2000, advertising accounted for 40% of the station's revenue."
Unfortunately, I have been unable to find updated budget or funding information.
The website Global Media Wars points out, "The homeland is Qatar, whose leader is rarely criticized. That said, Qatar doesn't get much coverage by any media, due to its tiny size and lack of geopolitical significance – outside of its creation of Al Jazeera." According to Pierre Tristam, "The network is heavily funded by Qatar’s royal family. Boycotts and pressure from other Arab regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia, keeps advertisers away and prevents the station from becoming self-sufficient." Additionally, earlier this year, Al Jazeera Arabic's Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara said that "government of Qatar funds Al Jazeera with hundreds of millions of dollars annually."
It should also be remembered that the U.S. and Qatar have very friendly relations. The U.S. Department of State confirms, "Ties between the U.S. and Qatar are excellent," and acknowledges, "Qatari forces played an important role in the first Gulf War, and Qatar has supported U.S. military operations critical to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom." Indeed, the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar serves as "host to a forward headquarters of United States Central Command, headquarters of United States Air Forces Central Command, and home to both No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group RAF and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF."
Last time I checked, Qatar wasn't funding American opposition groups, promoting regime change or imposing decades of sanctions on the United States. Also, Qatari government officials don't get millions of lobbying dollars from an American exile cult deemed a "terrorist organization" by Qatar promoting regime change in America. (I am in no way associating Parazit with the MEK, just providing some context regarding U.S. government policy towards Iran.)
As for Voice of America specifically, its history speaks for itself and I don't need to go into it here. Some consider the station to be straight-up propaganda, Saman Arbabi calls it "dry, hard news" (Parazit excepted, of course), and others think its efforts are admirable and necessary. This information about the amended Smith-Mundt Act is particularly interesting.
When the Bush administration decided to expand its VOA operations to Iran in 2005, Reuters quoted propaganda expert Nancy Snow of California State University, Fullerton, as saying, "People could see it as a sign that an invasion is coming. It's the sort of thing that happens before nations build up their war effort."
The budget of VOA (and its affiliates) for 2012 is $767 million, which is an increase of 2.5% from the current year. All funding is paid by the U.S. government (tax-payer dollars appropriated annually by Congress).
Here's a lovely photo of Voice of America's Broadcasting Board of Governors with Secretary of State Hillary "obliterate Iran" Clinton, who is also on the board (ex officio). The Board is appointed by the President of the United States. And yes, that's former George W. Bush spokesperson Dana Perino on the left. She's a board member, too.