When Canada’s National Post reported that Iran was instituting a color-coded system of badges to identify religious minorities, many sat up and took notice. It turned out the story was bogus, but Amir Tehari, the columnist who “broke” the “story,” is sticking by it. Bob speaks with Eleana Benador, the P.R. consultant who placed Tehari’s column, as well as the columns of many regime-change hawks in the months before the Iraq war.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last Friday, Canadians awoke to a shocker splashed across the front page of The National Post. The conservative daily reported that Iran's parliament had passed a law requiring all citizens to wear standard Islamic garments and all non-Muslims to wear color-coded badges signifying their religion. Jews would wear yellow, Christians red, Zoroastrians blue. The article was accompanied by a photo of a Hungarian Jewish couple in the 1940s with the Nazi-mandated stars sewn onto their coats. Bloggers leapt on the story, and Rush Limbaugh wasn't far behind. [RADIO BROADCAST]
RUSH LIMBAUGH: - in Iran. And human rights groups amazingly are raising alarms over this. I don't recall human rights groups coming to the defense of Christians lately, but I guess they've got no choice here. [END RADIO BROADCAST]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “It is yet another sign,” read a New York Post editorial the following day, “that Iran is testing the rest of the world's resolve regarding Tehran's nascent nuclear weapons program, even as Hitler tested the will of Europe with his piecemeal territorial expansion in the run-up to World War II.” Never mind that the story about the color-coded badges appears to have been completely false. On Saturday, The National Post ran a follow-up piece with outright denials from Iranian officials and experts, and on Wednesday, the paper's editor offered a 900-word apology. In it, he said the story's primary source was a column in the paper, also last Friday, by Iranian exile Amir Tehari.
BOB GARFIELD: Tehari is represented by Benador Associates, a public relations firm in New York run by Eleana Benador. Her client list reads like a Who's Who of neoconservative thinkers – Richard Perle, James Woolsey and Michael Ledeen, among others. They published many Op-Ed column inches supporting regime change in the run-up to the Iraq war, thanks to Benador's help. As for Tehari, he's sticking to his story about Iran's new dress code, and Eleana Benador is, too.
ELEANA BENADOR: I have not seen in that article anything [LAUGHS] wrong with that information. He says that there will be a new Iranian dress code, probably as of September – probably. For me, I think this is the bottom line. And, you know, people can distort it or look at it in their own way. You can have it black and white and they will see yellow and green.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I don't wish to quibble with you about the relative blackness of the sentence. It also envisages separate dress codes for religious minorities - Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians -
ELEANA BENADOR: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - who will have to adopt distinct color schemes to make them identifiable in public.
ELEANA BENADOR: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: But what raises my eyebrows about this whole incident is it is so eerily familiar to a story that was widely circulated, during the lead-up to the first Gulf War, about babies being thrown out of their incubators by Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait, a story that turned out to be a complete fabrication floated by a public relations agency that had as its client the kingdom of Kuwait.
ELEANA BENADOR: Yeah. Well, I see your point. The only thing I can tell you is that our funds are never coming from any government. And if my experts give me articles that they feel they have to publish, and we submit them to editors, and if they feel this is important enough, we all are working on the same direction, to try to protect the public. There is no warmongering here at all, but there are some instances where public opinion has to be alerted.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Eleana, I don't wish to rub your nose in this, but I've got to say in terms of being concerned and spreading the word, before the invasion of Iraq, you and your clients were, you know, quite noisy about WMD. Now those warnings have been discredited. Does this make you gun-shy about the Iran situation, or no?
ELEANA BENADOR: Well, we were not only speaking about weapons of mass destruction. We were speaking about also the massacres under Saddam Hussein. That was on behalf of human rights. Now, in my mind, I am convinced that there were weapons of mass destruction. I mean, even Colin Powell presented that on our television. We could see what was brought up from intelligence. You know, again, this is a case where, you know, you have the facts in front of you and people just prefer not to believe in that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now that the Iraq war has proved to be so unpopular, and widely regarded, anyway, as a complete fiasco, do you find centrist and left-of-center papers less hospitable to the work of your clients? Do you think that you've got a reputation for being so much a true believer that editors take you less seriously?
ELEANA BENADOR: No, not at all. Not at all. But I would say the administration is having a major problem in communicating to the American people. And the American people basically doesn't even remember why we are in Iraq, why we are in Afghanistan, why are we worried about Iran? You know, we are facing an enemy who casts views, extreme views of his own religion, and he wants to come, conquer the West, make us convert to his version of religion, and make me, a woman from the West, dress completely in black, not work. You know, I disagree with that. If this would be constantly playing to the people, you know, things would be much, much better for everybody.
BOB GARFIELD: So, then, to conclude, in the situation that we face now, when this theocratic, repressive regime seems on the verge of actually being a nuclear power, and Tehari comes up with a column like this, if it inflames the public, does it even matter to you whether the story is, strictly speaking, true?
ELEANA BENADOR: It does matter, but the point is, number one, I believe what Amir wrote. He's a man of integrity who's been fighting for human rights, you know, throughout the Middle East. You know, I'm worried about the Iranian government and if they are going to do this. Like, you know, if we are lucky and we stop it, and they don't do any dress code, well, that will be, you know, a great outcome.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Eleana, thank you very much.
ELEANA BENADOR: You are so welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Eleana Benador is president of Benador Associates Public Relations in New York. She spoke to us from Zurich.