Argument

Iran’s Fellow Travelers at the New York Times

Iran’s Fellow Travelers at the New York Times

On Nov. 23, the New York Times published its latest of more than half-a-dozen articles pleading for the Iranian government to release Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent who was imprisoned on charges of espionage more than 16 months ago. “Western officials hoped that the nuclear agreement would usher in a new era of broader cooperation with Iran,” the editorial board wrote. “But as they begin taking steps to ease economic sanctions on Iran, as called for in the deal, the treatment of Mr. Rezaian has intensified their concerns about whether Iran can be trusted to fulfill its nuclear commitments.”

The editorial’s most recent admonishment, like those that preceded it, managed to elide some relevant details about the newspaper’s relationship to the subject matter. First, the Times editorial board would clearly count as a member of any group looking forward to “a new era of broader cooperation with Iran.” Second, the Times has done far more than merely “hope” for such cooperation. While the newspaper has been demanding the release of an American journalist — one now facing a prison sentence of indeterminate length — some of its own journalists, under the auspices of their employer, have been engaging in a commercial enterprise that benefits his captors.

“Tales from Persia” is the exotic name the Times has given to the 13-day getaway to Iran it operates. For $7,195 (not including airfare), participants are invited to join columnist Roger Cohen, editorial board member Carol Giacomo (who is leading the trip that is currently ongoing), or Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino and hear their insights about “the traditions and cultures of a land whose influence has been felt for thousands of years.” The itinerary for the seven upcoming departures promises “beautiful landscapes, arid mountains and rural villages.” Needless to say, Evin Prison, where the Iranian government houses political prisoners and Rezaian continues to languish, is not among the stops, though a visit to the home of the late Ayatollah Khomeini is.

“Tales from Persia” is one of dozens of high-priced excursions put on by “Times Journeys,” a luxury tourism outfit operated by “the business side of the New York Times Company,” Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told me. Most of these expeditions are to run-of-the-mill tourist destinations like Austria or Venice; a few cover more adventuresome locales such as the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica. All are, in the words of the paper, “inspired by Times content and joined by either a New York Times journalist or Times-selected expert.”

The Times-operated trips to Iran (which began earlier this year) 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 Murphy, the Times spokeswoman.)

In selling its package tours to prospective travelers, the Times boasts of being “praised for its intensive and clear-eyed coverage of Iran going back decades.” When I asked Murphy if the Times’ cooperation with the Iranian government on a non-news related business undertaking, in light of the paper’s endorsement of the controversial nuclear agreement, might tarnish that coverage or at least create the perception that the paper has a bias, she told me that, “These destination choices in no way represent an endorsement by The Times and have no impact on our news coverage. Instead, the trips reflect the broad range of interests of our readers.” Nonetheless, it stands to reason that the Times would jeopardize its newfound business relationship with Iran if Tehran no longer approved of the paper’s coverage.

As a journalist, I find it dismaying that the Times would collaborate in a business venture with a government currently imprisoning an American reporter. The apparent lack of institutional and collegial solidarity has also surprised Rezaian’s brother, who has been campaigning for his release. “It seems like an odd time for the New York Times to be encouraging people to go over there,” Ali Rezaian told me. “I’m not suggesting anything evil about it; it’s not illegal to go to Iran. Is it unseemly? Yeah, for an organization that wants to say that it’s a fair news organization, that claims to be the pinnacle of news in the United States, to profit off of this, I think it’s unseemly at best.”

Another issue that ought to concern the Times, but seems not to, is safety. “If there’s somebody at any organization, travel or news organization, that says they can guarantee their safety or it will not be a problem, that is an absolute lie,” Ali Rezaian says. “There is clearly no rule of law over there in a sense that we take it. Anything can happen to anybody who goes over there.” The arrest of Siamak Namazi, a prominent Iranian-American businessman, in October offers only the latest evidence that travel to Iran, one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism, is fraught with risk.

The Times makes scant acknowledgement of such dangers. “As to safety, we work with several industry leading tour operators who monitor safety in Iran, and globally, at all times. We, in collaboration with our operators, would not undertake any journey if there was a known concern with our itinerary,” Murphy says. The fine print on the Times Journeys website offers a general warning that “certain risks and dangers may arise, including, but not limited to … the dangers of civil disturbances, war, extortion, kidnapping and terrorist activities; dangers and risks inherent in activities in underdeveloped countries; and dangers of local law enforcement activity.”

But the U.S. State Department was much more specific than that in its most recent travel advisory for Iran, which warns that American citizens “may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran,” and that, “Iranian authorities also have unjustly detained or imprisoned U.S. citizens on various charges, including espionage and posing a threat to national security.” (The Times also makes sure that it can’t be held liable for such risks, informing participants they “expressly agree to forever release, discharge and hold us and our agents, employees, officers and directors, harmless against any and all liability, actions, causes of actions, suits, claims and demands of any and every kind and nature whatsoever which you now have or which may hereafter arise out of or in connection with your Tour or participation in any activities in which you participate.”)

Unlike Cuba, Americans have long been free to travel to Iran, and there’s nothing objectively wrong with individual tourists — “private American ambassadors,” as Sciolino puts it in a video advertising the trip to readers — learning more about this fascinating and important country. What is ethically dubious is an ostensibly impartial news organization engaging in a mutually advantageous moneymaking venture with an authoritarian regime holding an American journalist hostage. “Jason has always been a proponent of engagement with Iran and people going over there. He’s the Iran expert. I don’t think you can make things better without talking to people,” says Ali Rezaian. “But that doesn’t mean that news organizations should be putting people in this kind of danger and profiting off of it.”

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images