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PBS Ombudsman

Should PBS and Frontline Have a 'Tehran Bureau?'

The dramatic and historic popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that have ousted leaders of repressive regimes have begun to invigorate protest movements in other countries in the region. In the most important country, the Islamic Republic of Iran, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in several cities on Monday in solidarity with the Egyptian people. They were met and dispersed by Iranian security forces, as promised in advance by Iranian authorities who had deemed the protest to be illegal.

It was the largest opposition protest in Iran since 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the aftermath of a disputed election in June of that year that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Those much more massive protests were crushed by security forces. But Monday's rallies, though smaller, showed that the opposition was still there and willing to take risks.

Before Monday's protests took place, you could read about "The Call to Rally" that was going on among many opposition groups inside Iran on a website labeled "Tehran Bureau," which bills itself as "an independent news organization . . . not affiliated with any government, religious organization, political party, lobby or interest group."

It was founded in November 2008 by its editor-in-chief, Iranian-born and Massachusetts-based Kelly Golnoush Niknejad. It describes itself as "committed to adding original reporting, comment and essays on one of the most important stories in the world," and also on one of the most difficult to cover for western journalists, who have little access. The "virtual" bureau makes use of some Iranian journalists inside Iran, bloggers, specialists on the country and others to provide a steady stream of postings.

During the massive 2009 demonstrations, the site was a valued source of news and analysis and earned a "must-read status," as described in a New York Times article in September 2009.

So What Does This Have to Do With PBS?

In September 2009, the site entered into "an editorial partnership" with PBS's highly regarded investigative and public affairs series Frontline. The program, the Times reported in that article, "is essentially taking Tehran Bureau under its wing by financing and hosting the Web site and providing editorial support."


I started a file on that partnership at the time but haven't written about it. Maybe I should have done so earlier. But the partnership, though undoubtedly contributing to news and views from inside that country that might otherwise not get out and giving it much more visibility, has continued to have sort of a fly-in-my-soup quality for me as an observer of PBS.

I have no quarrel with or criticism of Tehran Bureau. I don't know enough about Iran to evaluate its reporting but I can accept that it has value. And I'm in favor, naturally, of anything that gets more information out about Iran, and clearly the vast majority of Americans, certainly, favor a free and truly democratic Iran.

My Problem

Where I have difficulty is in the close and unique association of this relatively new website focused on a single country with Frontline and PBS. Tehran Bureau appears online under the Frontline and PBS banners as part of the Frontline site. That looks to me, and I assume to some others who come upon the site, like a big-time stamp of approval from two names that stand for journalistic credibility and distance.

The Bureau is in the middle of a big, and seething, story, one that already has seen episodes of violence and that could possibly be truly explosive some day. The site clearly contains lots of opposition reporting and views among its postings, and all the reporting about the "calls to rally" by various groups posted on its site prior to Monday's protests finally brought this marriage to my keyboard, at least as questions worth exploring.

Is this partnership a proper role for PBS, Frontline and WGBH, the Boston member-station that is home to many of the best and most important programs on PBS? Does it go beyond public broadcasting's mission and somehow hint at involvement or advocacy beyond straight-forward, verifiable journalism? Is it a plus for Frontline in adding to the flow of information to the public, or does it risk a hard-earned reputation for not becoming part of the story? Does anyone monitor or edit this material, and who reads it?

Frontline, along with CBS's 60 Minutes, is, in my view, the best, most probing, and most fearless public affairs series on television, and partnering with this site probably falls into the imaginative ways programs such as Frontline move and evolve with the times. But I can't imagine a major network, let alone public broadcasting, having the same kind of relationship.

Certainly Tehran Bureau's reports can be quoted, used as a source, linked to, and used in many different ways. But prominently hosting its website while bestowing the PBS and Frontline logos as sort of a blessing, plus providing some financial and editorial support seems much too close for journalistic distance and comfort for me.

I asked Frontline about its relationship with Tehran Bureau, how it works and is financed, and about the audience. And I also asked for their view of the broader questions above that I raised in the column.

Here's the Response from Senior Editor Ken Dornstein

Tehran Bureau is, at its core, the work of its Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Niknejad, a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a lawyer by training. She's also helped report on Iran for FRONTLINE, which is how we first came to work with her.

Kelly founded Tehran Bureau a few years ago in response to a troubling reality: Almost no Western news organization had been able to regularly report from inside Iran — and, when they did, it was often under serious restriction. The country is perennially at the bottom of the rankings kept by The Committee to Protect Journalists and others.

From the beginning, Kelly committed Tehran Bureau to filling this gap in independent reporting, distinguishing herself from the advocacy efforts of the Green Movement and others. To do this, Kelly built a network of reporters and sources — inside and outside of the country — who she carefully vets and thoroughly edits. The result is a rare, trusted source of original journalism and commentary on Iran that is regularly relied upon by many other journalists, congressional staffers, and diplomats. The site's Twitter followers range from John McCain to Vali Nasr, now of the U.S. State Department.

In the Fall of 2009, FRONTLINE stepped in to give Kelly a desk and some crucial financial and editorial support to keep this powerful reporting engine going. Tehran Bureau is a great fit with FRONTLINE's commitment to original, timely reporting on the biggest stories of our day. It also offers an innovative way for us to cover Iran, a complicated story which will remain of paramount importance to our American audience for years to come.

When Tehran Bureau publishes commentary, analysis, or opinion, it is more diverse, nuanced, and carefully edited than what one usually finds from advocates. All opinion and commentary is also clearly marked, following standard practice for most news outlets.

And More Details from Frontline's Dornstein

Sixty-three percent of site visits to Tehran Bureau, a total of 948,541, are generated within the United States. The top ten sources of site visits are the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Iran, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates.

International visitors from over 130 different countries comprise 37% of the site traffic. Over 29,000 visits have been from within Iran itself. It is also likely that many Iranian readers are purposefully following the website in ways that cannot be tracked such as via RSS feeds or proxies.

Tehran Bureau was viewable inside Iran until a few months ago, when it was officially blocked. We can't be sure the reason behind the change, but as sites grow in popularity and influence, they risk being blocked. That said, our latest stats still show some views inside Iran.

FRONTLINE has a service agreement with Kelly Niknejad to manage the Tehran Bureau web site. In addition to compensating Kelly financially, FRONTLINE offers in-kind contributions, including office space, phone, computer and Internet service and a stipend for travel and commissioned works. Additionally, FRONTLINE provides design and technical support to the Tehran Bureau site.

Financial support for Tehran Bureau is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Flora Family Foundation. Past support was also provided by the Donner Foundation.

Editorially, we oversee everything that Kelly herself posts, but due to the nature of the blog — and the need to post content at all hours — we do not review everything else before it's posted. We monitor the content on a regular basis and intervene where necessary.

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