At the risk of being labeled a wet blanket at a potentially great and paradigm-shifting juncture of history, it needs to be said that American television news coverage of Iran ought to come with a warning label.

There is the obvious observation that pundits who specialize in the analysis of Washington politics do not necessarily know any more about Iran than the guy you sat next to on the subway this morning – they’re simply less willing to admit it. What is less obvious is the degree to which broadcasters have allowed a combination of frustration and misplaced enthusiasm to cloud their news judgment.

Their frustration is directed at Iran’s authorities, who have expelled most foreign reporters from the country and confined those who remain to their hotels. The lockdown is far from leak-proof. Some of the remaining reporters – the New York Times’ Roger Cohen has been especially noteworthy – are doing an excellent job of conveying the views and voices of the people they are meeting.

The reporting restrictions represent a particular burden for the TV networks. Slipping out of the hotel with a camera is a lot harder than slipping out with only a notebook. As a picture-driven medium television has, perhaps understandably, turned to YouTube and Twitter in a desperate search for both information and images. This is the place where the reporting, such as it is, needs to be a lot more transparent.

TV newsrooms, especially those in the cable world, are frenetic places at the best of times. Contrary to what many outsiders believe their bias tends not to be political but rather toward whatever appears to be new and eye-catching. In recent years the TV networks have been increasingly aggressive in encouraging viewers to send in homemade video of news events. For the networks, this promised an enviable combination of circumstances: it made viewers feel more involved. In doing so it kept them watching. Perhaps best of all, at a time of tightening budgets it promised a cost-free supply of new and dramatic pictures.

All of which is good as far as it goes. The trade-off, however, is a loss of context. I left CNN just before the send-us-your-videos era began, but everything I have seen as a viewer and heard from friends who still work there (and at the other networks) leads me to believe that viewer-supplied videos get on the air mainly because they are judged to be “good TV”. From an executive producer’s standpoint riots, explosions, flames and gunfire almost always constitute “good TV”. Usually, however, one also has a reporter either on the scene or somewhere nearby to put the dramatic images into some sort of context.

What distresses me about the last ten days of coverage is not that loss of context, but rather the failure of virtually everyone standing in front of a camera to acknowledge it. The tools of 21st century technology are great. In giving ordinary Iranians new ways to defy their oppressors they have been inspiring. But network anchors would do us all a favor by gushing less over the technology and either being more selective about what they choose to air, or more transparent about why a particular clip makes the cut.

Of course, it is unlikely we will ever see Wolf Blitzer or Shepard Smith look into the camera and say:

“We’ve just received new video from someone who says he’s in Tehran. We’ve no idea who sent us this, when it was shot or where these events took place. The sender says these pictures show bad people attacking good people and that seems pretty plausible, but it’s important to let you know we can’t actually vouch for that. We do, however, know there is a very cool explosion about 13 seconds in. That’s why our producers felt we simply couldn’t pass on this one and chose it rather than the 30 or so similar clips we’ve received this morning.”

Don’t get me wrong. I know that everyone at CNN, Fox, MSNBC et al is trying hard to get this right. But if you want to be an informed viewer it is important to understand how folks in the TV business think; and when competitive pressures run up against a lack of facts and video nuance tends to be the first thing to go. By all means, keep watching, but be skeptical whenever the person presenting the video does not seem to know any more about it than you do.

 


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