WASHINGTON — My Uber driver to the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday night was an Iranian journalist jailed for four years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and sentenced to 60 lashes.
Siamak Ghaderi had been an editor and reporter for the Islamic Republic’s official news agency, IRNA. In 2010, Iranian authorities arrested him. He was convicted on charges of “propagating against the regime,” “creating public anxiety” and “spreading falsehoods,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As Ghaderi explained it, the Iranian government essentially prosecuted him for covering the Green Movement, also known as the Persian Spring. His crime was first-person reporting after Tehran ruled “that you can never go to the street and cover affairs. You have to stay in your office and wait for the official declaration.”
Ghaderi’s other crime was to report that there are homosexuals in Iran after then-President Mahmood Ahmadinejad said they did not exist in the Islamic Republic in 2007.
Prison staff flogged the journalist 60 times halfway into his sentence. It wasn’t life threatening, wife Farzaneh Mirzavand said. It was “just beating emotionally, just killing his espirit.”
When the Committee to Protect Journalists invited Ghaderi to New York in 2014 to accept an international press freedom award, he and his wife came to the United States with their son and applied for asylum.
The encounter Saturday presented an awkward juxtaposition for me — an American journalist going to a high-ticket event to schmooze with sources and enjoy the glow that comes with covering Washington’s big story, even if I blanch at my profession’s unseemly tendency to self-aggrandizement.
Forget speaking truth to power. We’re too busy patting ourselves on the back.
Comedian Michelle Wolf, the after-dinner entertainment for the White House press corps and their guests, wasn’t funny. She was crude. And her routine confirmed the suspicion of many Americans that the press corps is out to get Trump — because, well, a number of reporters are out to get Trump.
It was a mistake to invite Wolf, but it was not an outrage. Political satire can be cruel, as Trump learned at the 2011 WHCA dinner when Seth Meyers made hay out of Trump’s physical appearance.
But there is a silver lining. Saturday’s dinner gave those of us in the news business a taste of what it’s like to be treated the way we treat others. We watch a four-hour event and decide which 45 seconds rate the most attention. If those 45 seconds confirm our biases, so much the better.
Once the story has gone up, the umbrage industry can chew it to pieces, and we’re onto the next rodeo.
WHCA president Margaret Talev of Bloomberg — who invited Wolf — is one of the best journalists I know. She works like a demon, and she never stops thinking about how to squeeze information out of a rock. She asks smart questions, not gotcha fare.
The viewing public didn’t see that reporter — or much journalism, for that matter.
Ghaderi told me he did not watch Wolf because his English is not good enough to appreciate American humor. But “at least you can laugh at him,” Ghaderi said of Trump. Iranian journalists cannot laugh at their leaders.
He posts articles in Persian on Facebook, and he writes for other publications — not necessarily for money but because it’s “my responsibility.” He is an Uber driver because “I need to drive with Uber.”
Maybe he could speak at the WHCA dinner next year.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.
Message from WHCA President
I want to tell you how much your kind words meant to me following my personal remarks at last night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner about the roots of my belief in journalism’s essential role.
I also have heard from members expressing dismay with the entertainer’s monologue and concerns about how it reflects on our mission. Olivier Knox, who will take over this summer as our president, and I, recognize these concerns and are committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward. Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.
– WHCA President Margaret Talev