Bunkum From Benador

Bunkum From Benador

The debunking of a PR agency that circulated a bogus story about persecution of Jews in Iran exposed the moving parts of a media machine bent on preparing the American public for another war.


The neoconservative campaign to equate Iran with Nazi Germany received a setback in May. Bloggers and a few journalists quickly exposed as wholly concocted a story about a new law that would require Iranian Jews to wear yellow insignia. Within days the National Post of Canada–founded by disgraced neocon media mogul Conrad Black and now owned by the no less hawkish Asper family–was forced to apologize publicly for its "scoop." But by then the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, right-wing blogs and some wire services had picked up the claim, bringing the phony news to millions.

Few ran retractions. And despite the debunking, the story's powerful visual imagery was likely lasting for casual readers. Over headlines blaring Iran, some papers ran photos of Jews from the Nazi era wearing the yellow stars that separated them from their fellow citizens before their slaughter.

Nevertheless, the debunking exposed the moving parts of a media machine intent on priming the public for war with Iran–as it did earlier with stories about Iraq's nonexistent WMD. Ubiquitous in this campaign, as it was with Iraq, is the PR firm Benador Associates. Its president, Eleana Benador, told me it was her agency that placed the article with the National Post. Its stable of writers and activists, a Who's Who of the neocon movement, includes Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Frank Gaffney, Charles Krauthammer, Victor Davis Hanson and Iranian exile journalist Amir Taheri–the author of the bogus piece. Even among a crowd notable for wrongheaded analyses, Taheri stands out, with a rap sheet that leaves one amazed that he continues to be published. It is here that the role of Benador is key; the firm gives Taheri a political stamp of approval that provides entree to hawkish media venues, where journalistic criteria are secondary.

It was in 1989 that Taheri was first exposed as a journalistic felon. The book he published the year before, Nest of Spies, examined the rule and fall of the Shah of Iran. Taheri received many respectful reviews, but in The New Republic Shaul Bakhash, a reigning doyen of Persian studies, checked Taheri's footnotes. Suddenly a book review became an investigative exposé. Bakhash, a history professor at George Mason University and a former fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, detailed case after case in which Taheri cited nonexistent sources, concocted nonexistent substance in cases where the sources existed and distorted the substance beyond recognition when it was present. Taheri "repeatedly refers us to books where the information he cites simply does not exist," Bakhash wrote. "Often the documents cannot be found in the volumes to which he attributes them…. [He] repeatedly reads things into the documents that are simply not there." In one case, noted Bakhash, Taheri cited an earlier article of his own–but offered content he himself never wrote in that article. Bakhash concluded that Nest of Spies was "the sort of book that gives contemporary history a bad name." In a response published two months later, Taheri failed to rebut Bakhash's charges.

Yet, thanks to Benador and the outlets that publish its writers, Taheri survived to publish again. And again. The concoctions continued, with the full knowledge of his enablers. In a New York Post column last year, Taheri identified Iran's UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, as one of the students involved in the illegal 1979 seizure of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. San Francisco State University professor Dwight Simpson wrote the Post politely to request a correction. "This allegation is false," he explained. "On November 4, 1979 [the day of the seizure], Javad Zarif was in San Francisco. He was then a graduate student in the Department of International Relations of San Francisco State University. He was my student, and he served also as my teaching assistant."

"The newspaper didn't print the letter, and I never got an acknowledgment," Simpson told me. When an Iranian friend of Simpson's, Kaveh Afrasiabi, called Eleana Benador about the error, she initially promised to seek a retraction from Taheri if he faxed her Simpson's letter, Afrasiabi related. When he followed up, "she became hysterical," he said. And when Afrasiabi called Taheri himself, "he hung up on me."

Taheri was unreachable by phone. But Benador, who said her client was "traveling in the Middle East," was impatient with dissections of his work. Terming accuracy with regard to Iran "a luxury," she said, "My major concern is the large picture. Is Taheri writing one or two details that are not accurate? This is a guy who is putting his life at stake." She noted that "the Iranian government has killed its opponents." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "says he wants to destroy Israel. He says the Holocaust never happened…. As much as being accurate is important, in the end it's important to side with what's right. What's wrong is siding with the terrorists."

Taheri might seem to be one of Benador's biggest liabilities. In fact, he is right now the agency's proudest coup. On May 30–just days after the National Post's apology for running his false story on Iranian Jews–Taheri was one of a group of "Iraq experts" brought to the White House to consult with George W. Bush on the disastrous situation there. Who needs Hill & Knowlton when you've got Benador Associates?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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