Times Journey into Iran: Business-side embarrassment or news conflict of interest?

Intimidation works. In fact, it works quite well, and it appears not to matter whether the intended target is a nation, a kid in the schoolyard or a media outlet.

Witness Iran and the case of Washington Post Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian, recently freed after being held by the Iranian government for 18 months.

Martin Baron, the Post editor, says the newspaper will not station another reporter in Iran until the Islamic republic assures the newspaper that any reporter it sends to Tehran will be allowed to function free of government intimidation.

A cautionary word of advice to Marty: Don't hold your breath.

So not only did Iran get to hold Rezaian as a bargaining chip during the recent nuclear sanctions negotiations, it also rid itself of one more Western journalistic thorn in its side, that being the Post.

As I said, intimidation works quite well. Journalists working in Russia, Mexico, China, Turkey, Egypt, Cuba, Ethiopia, Burundi and a host of other nations know this all too well. It doesn't matter whether the intimidators are government officials or narco criminals.

But here's a question. Is there a moral conflict of interest issue when the business side of a news outlet chooses to cooperate for financial gain with a government that intimidates journalists, both its own citizens and foreign correspondents?

Specifically, I'm referring to those New York Times operated tours to Iran.

It's a two-week (give or take a day), high-end (prices start at $7,100, air fare is extra), exotic-travel adventure, Iran being just one of several interesting places you can visit in the company of some of the paper's highest profile writers, both current and former, as well as outside experts.

It's important to note that "Times Journeys," as the trips are called, are operated by the Times business side, not the news operation, in connection with outside tour companies. But is that enough of a fire wall?

My interest in Times Journeys was piqued by two opinion pieces I recently read.

The more recent piece ran in Tablet, the online magazine that focuses on Israel and the Middle East, plus global Jewish concerns. The piece is by Lee Smith, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Click here to read it.

The second piece I read was actually the first of the two published. It ran in December in Foreign Policy, the respected, mainstream bi-monthly. The author was James Kirchik, another right-leaning journalist. He wrote, in part:

The Times-operated trips to Iran (which began [in 2015]) differ in important ways from those taking place in Andalusia, or aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner. First, such voyages to Iran would be impossible absent approval from high-level figures in the host country’s government, who have a political and financial interest in their taking place. Luxury tours of this sort bring much-needed revenue to the country. And since they are operated by America’s newspaper of record, they also provide a stamp of legitimacy to a regime most Americans rightly loathe.
 The trips also raise ethical questions about the Times’ coverage of Iran, in a way that, say, “Shakespeare and His England,” chaperoned by former theater editor Patricia Cohen, doesn’t color the paper’s reporting of British politics. This “once-forbidden land,” as the Times refers to it in its advertising copy for the trip, is now open for business thanks to the nuclear deal -- whose passage the journalists on these trips have strenuously advocated. Roger Cohen (who has referred to opposition to the deal as “foolishness dressed up as machismo”) and, in addition to her capacity as an editorial board member, Carol Giacomo (who has characterized Sen. Bob Menendez’s opposition as “pre-endorsement of war”) were prominent supporters of lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. It’s impossible to acknowledge their participation in the profit-generating “Tales from Persia” without at least considering the possibility of a serious conflict of interest. (Neither Giacomo nor Sciolino responded to messages seeking comment; Cohen deferred to [a] Times spokeswoman.)

The Standard, Hudson and Kirchik fall squarely on the conservative side of the right-left matrix by which all things are judged these days. That will make it easy for liberal readers to dismiss both opinion essays as just more politically motivated, right-wing attacks on the Times, generally a politically and socially liberal publication.

I can't discern motivations. But I'm generally a Times defender, as regular GetReligion readers should know. Still, I find myself made uncomfortable by the paper's business dealings with Iran -- dealings that started way before the international sanctions-lifting agreement with Tehran was concluded.

By the way, does your passport indicate that you've visited Israel? Sorry, but you'd better get a new one or you won't get an Iranian visa. I learned this from a Times Journeys representative I spoke with. Does that constitute cooperation with Iran's boycott of all things Israeli?

Is that just another form of intimidation?

Times Journeys also offers tour to Tibet, another dubious business association for the newspaper, given Beijing's occupation of the exiled Dalai Lama's homeland. Since ethnic Tibetans can be jailed simply for mentioning the Dalai Lama's name, I wonder what might happen if a Times tourist has the audacity to mention his name?

Despite the nuclear agreement, Iran remains one bad actor. In cahoots with Russia, it appears to have saved Bashar Assad's murderous hide in Syria. It funds Hezbollah and Hamas in their efforts to destroy Israel, and it's stirred death and destruction in Yemen -- for starters. 

It's also no secret that the Iranian theocracy keeps its citizens in line through intimidation, and worse. The government also seems, so far at least, to be keeping the financial rewards resulting from the lifting of Western sanctions for itself, rather than allowing the private sector to also benefit.

(By the way, it seems well-traveled tourists seeking a new exotic locale are now flocking to Iran, as this Times story details. And just to be clear, I have no argument with tourists visiting Iran. The post is meant only to raise the question of Times involvement.)

So I ask again: Is this just another case of the industry's business side embarrassing the news side? That's not an uncommon occurrence in the news BUSINESS. Or is this something more odious?

Readers, what do you think?

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