This Is a delicate one. How do I praise an esteemed colleague for scoring a breakthrough, attention-grabbing, complicated, and perhaps even dangerous story while also cautioning readers to be suspicious of his story's content?
My hope is to make a point about the tough task facing journalists who swoop into a place run by a dictatorship known for its masterful media manipulation, and are expected to produce definitive reports based on their limited time in-country?
I'm speaking about the recent stories published in The Forward by Larry Cohler-Esses, who recently visited Iran at Teheran's invitation, making him the first journalist from an American Jewish, pro-Zionist publication to do so since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The mere fact of his trip was mainstream news, and understandably so. The New York Times, NPR, CNN, The Guardian, Haaretz, and other big names in American, European and, of course, Israeli journalism rushed to interview him about his experience.
A personal note: I have known Larry for a quarter century -- yup, I'm dispensing with AP style here; it seems too formal for a colleague. We met when he worked for a Jewish weekly in Washington, D.C., and I toiled for the competition in Baltimore, but we are not close. I know him to be a stickler for accuracy and a reporter with superb journalistic instincts who excels in tackling difficult subjects. I'm sure he accurately reported what he saw and was told.
Currently The Forward's assistant managing editor, it took Larry two years to get his visa for Iran, a sign of his tenacity. But perhaps it's also a sign of Iran's ability to time its moves to squeeze the most it can out of a situation.
Larry, who lived and taught in pre-revolutionary Iran, published two stories in August based on his week-long visit. The first detailed his impressions of the country and, appropriate for a Jewish-orientated newspaper, attitudes toward Israel.
His conversations with "several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials" led him to write that it was Israel's policies and not the very existence of a Jewish state in the heart of the Muslim Middle East to which they objected.
Square that with these statements, all within just one week, by high-level Iranian official about their desire to confront and destroy Israel. The comments, and dozens more like them by Iranian leaders over the years, underscore why a preponderance of Israeli Jews fear the proposed Iranian nuclear agreement hangs them out to dry.
Larry's second piece was about the remnant Iranian Jewish community that survives as a dhimmi population -- a protected, non-Muslim community subject to the rules, and whims, of the dominate Muslim culture.
As long as Iran's approximately 9,000-plus remaining Jews (down from as many as 100,000 before 1979) refrain from voicing any support for Israel or directly challenge Iran's shariah-derived laws or the ruling class, wrote Larry, they may practice religious Judaism and retain their communal identity, but with major restraints. By way of example; Iran insists that all Jewish community schools have a Muslim at the helm.
So why, now, after two years of trying, did the Iranian government allow Larry entry?
Was it purely a P.R. gimmick? An attempt to sway the U.S. Congress -- and Jewish members of Congress in particular -- that must approve the Obama-negotiated nuclear deal, that Iran is not the anti-Semitic monster it's made out to be? Or perhaps the gesture was meant to provide a bit more diplomatic cover to the European nations chomping at the bit to resume trade with Iran?
"Whether this was a reflection of increased openness by the government I cannot say," Larry wrote. "My visa came only after a former representative of Iran’s Jewish community in the country’s parliament wrote a letter on my behalf."
I may sound Machiavellian here, but was that letter Teheran's way of having the Iranian Jewish leadership take responsibility for whatever Larry wrote?
(Wait. I doubt one can be unduly Machiavellian when it comes to Iran. There is, after all, the case of Jason Rezaian, a correspondent for The Washington Post, held in Iran on charges that include espionage, a pending case that has been sharply criticized internationally.)
Reese Erlich, a writer for the news site GlobalPost, visited Iran the same time as did Larry. He produced a story noting the general security of the Iranian Jewish community and its support for the tentative nuclear deal that, in the United States, has bitterly divided Jews into for and against camps.
Erlich was roundly criticized by some Jewish right-leaning media watchdog groups opposed to the deal. He wrote this post in defense of his reporting, arguing that the deal's opponents just won't hear anything remotely positive about Iran.
Frankly, given what I said above about the tightrope Iranian Jews must walk to survive, I find Erlich's argument unsustainable. But I cite him here as evidence that Larry is not entirely alone in his relative optimism.
Contradicting Erlich, however, is this following piece that also appeared in The Forward. It's harsh criticism of Larry's work is testament to The Forward's commitment to fair and honest journalism. The writer is Roya Hakaian, an Iranian-born Jew and journalist. Note she also questions why the Iranian Jewish leader had to write a letter on Larry's behalf.
She concluded that given Iran's ability to manage what journalists see, who they talk to, and the consequences for its citizens, both Jews and on-Jews, who cross the regime, "no reporter can step [in] for a week and bring back the truth, even a semblance of it."
And that's my point. Be suspicious about journalism resulting from brief reporting trips behind the lines.