The calls started pouring in from Iranian-Americans all over the country within hours after Morning Edition aired two stories about an Iranian opposition group that is little-known in the United States.
The 50-some calls came from San Francisco, Honolulu, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., among other places.
The callers were polite, well-spoken and said they were calling as individuals not associated with any organization. They repeatedly said how much they admire NPR, and that they routinely give money to their public radio stations.
Even if their calls were part of a campaign, that doesn't invalidate their complaints.
They were unhappy with two stories about the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (People's Holy Warriors, MEK). The MEK is the largest and most militant group opposed to the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
It was added to the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups in 1997 because of its alleged attacks against Iranian and Western targets. The United States also disapproved of the group's backing from former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In May, Britain's Court of Appeal said that the U.K. government had "no reliable evidence" that the MEK continues to be a terrorist group. Last month, the British Parliament voted to take the group off the terrorist list. The last reported MEK terrorist act was against the Iranian government in 2001.
The two NPR stories on April 28 — spanning nearly nine minutes — focused on the fate of 3,000 Iranian MEK members living in exile at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, near the Iranian border. U.S. military police disarmed the members in 2003 and currently control the camp, according to Global Security.org.
The presence of MEK members at that camp is problematic. The Iraqi government wants them to leave. Reportedly, no other country wants them. And many are afraid to return to Iran even though the government in Tehran says it will accept them if they renounce the MEK. Since outside access to the camp is limited, the identities and status of those inside is unclear.
The stories were reported by Anne Garrels and Mike Shuster, two of NPR's most-respected, veteran correspondents who have covered stories all over the world. Normally, a piece by either promises a fascinating, unusual take on stories from Iran, Iraq or elsewhere — grounded on solid, well-balanced reporting.
But these two stories lacked balance, were hard-to-follow, cited only a few sources and used — or allowed the MEK's opponents to use — loaded language. These lapses were not entirely the reporters' fault since every story is a collaborative effort that involves reporters, editors and producers.
But the lapses didn't escape the notice of callers. "My own brother was part of this group and he was executed by the government of Iran," said Majid Biani, calling from Honolulu. "There was nothing [in the stories] about what Tehran has done to the MEK."
"They were basically the same thing that we hear from the agents of the regime of Iran," said Nasrin Saifi, an Iranian-American in San Francisco. "I'm a very educated person but you don't have to be educated to know that there are two sides to every story."
It's journalism 101 to seek out and offer all sides of a story or at least explain why you aren't including all sides.
Garrels' five-minute piece, which was reported in Iraq, detailed the plight of MEK members living at Camp Ashraf and questioned what will happen to them if the Iraqis kick them out. Shuster's four-minute story, reported from Iran, quoted the Iranian government as being willing to repatriate members if they aren't on a 'most-wanted' list and promise to denounce the MEK.
Both stories cited few sources. In Garrels' piece, listeners heard directly from only two former members who had escaped from the MEK. The piece also quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying that "a significant number of cult members are trapped" in Camp Ashraf. Shuster quoted two men in Tehran — a former MEK member and an Iranian government official.
The overall impression left by the two pieces is that the MEK is a terrorist group that brainwashes members, takes away their children and won't let residents freely leave Camp Ashraf. But there was nothing from the MEK's point of view responding to the accusations of former members.
"Do these pieces meet NPR standards?" asked Shahin Gobadi, the MEK press liaison in Paris. "Both talked to people who are turncoats or defectors and there was not even a single line saying that this group denies the allegations. That's flabbergasting. There was no attempt to contact us in Paris, in Baghdad or everywhere else period."
Garrels said that the U.S. military would not allow her to visit Camp Ashraf to talk with MEK members. She also told me that she has covered this group for 20 years and is very familiar with how they operate, and stands by the story. "Could the story have been clearer, making it clearer that I had spoken to more than a dozen defectors, that I was not permitted to go into Ashraf? Yes," said Garrels.
Garrels said that she also spoke at length with international human rights experts in Baghdad who had been to the camp once with great difficulty. However, those conversations were not for attribution so they could not be used on the air.
"They say they were never able to talk to any MEK members without leaders by their side," said Garrels by email, in describing her interviews. "They said that MEK leaders interrupted and intimidated members with whom they spoke, leaving them to conclude that members were not free to speak their minds."
When two Los Angeles Times reporters visited Camp Ashraf in 2005 — the first such visit by Western journalists since shortly after the Iraq War — they wrote that, "The visit left the impression that if there is a definable line between commune and cult, the MEK might just be straddling it."
When I asked Doug Roberts, NPR's Middle East editor, about the lack of response from the MEK, he said in an email: "There are not MEK spokespersons to be had in either Baghdad or Tehran, leastwise none that still belong to the organization. There have been many (MEK) defection stories over the years, not dissimilar from those recounted by Garrels and Shuster." Roberts also said U.S. news organizations had done numerous stories about the MEK in general. Even so, an NPR librarian found only four stories since 2003 that NPR had done on the MEK, which means the group likely is not familiar to many listeners.
Shuster said he wasn't comfortable contacting the MEK while inside Tehran. He also questioned whether groups like the MEK, that are on the U.S. and European Union terrorist lists, should be treated as one might treat a mainstream news source. "We certainly don't do it [ask for comment] with Al Qaeda or PKK [an extremist Kurdish group] in Northern Iraq," said Shuster. "It's in the public record what their side is."
That may be true for Al Qaeda. NPR and other news organizations have produced extensive reports about Al Qaeda's motivations. But when NPR does a story that portrays an unfamiliar group in strongly negative tones — even if justified — the network is obligated to get the group's point of view into the story. At the very least, the allegation that the MEK leadership at Camp Ashraf was "terrorizing" the inmates should have had a response of some kind.
Neither piece gave the listener much background on the MEK: Who they are, what are their goals, and why are they controversial? Also left unclear for the listener is the ambiguous relationship with the United States, which protects and controls access to Camp Ashraf.
The Garrels story referred to the MEK as a "cult" three times but provided little evidence or justification for that description. By using the word "cult," which is a loaded term, it's easy for a listener to dismiss the group without knowing much about it.
"The assumption that they are a cult, without providing evidence, is one that could be subjected to serious doubt," said Noah Feldman, an Islamic studies expert at Harvard who was asked to listen to the stories. "The average listener might easily have thought that everyone agreed it is a cult."
While a 2008 State Department report calls the MEK a terrorist organization, it "does not consider the group a cult, but they exhibit-many cult-like behavior patterns," said John Fleming, Iraq press and public diplomacy officer at State. "They're a unique group with their own norms and customs." Garrels told me that other officials at State, speaking for not-for-attribution, describe MEK as a cult.
I asked several Middle East experts familiar with the MEK to listen to the stories. Most critical was Patrick Clawson, deputy director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
"My big gripe with the two stories is that they took at face value statements by defectors and Iranian government officials — hardly the most objective sources," said Clawson. "Neither story noted the problem with relying on such sources. Neither Anne Garrels nor Mike Shuster refer to any effort they made to speak to MEK leaders or members. If they made no such effort, that is a big problem. If they did and got no response, they should have said so. Perhaps what Garrels and Shuster reported is correct, perhaps not. They have no way of knowing based on speaking to defectors and Iranian officials."
Overall, the experts I spoke with thought the stories were accurate so far as they went but were incomplete and unclear to the average listener.
"Your journalists would have made it more difficult to criticize them if, in addition to the Iranian government and former Mujahedeen who are perceived as biased, they had talked to scholars or analysts affiliated with universities or think tanks to give some perspective," said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
They also made the point that circumstances surrounding the MEK, by any definition, are murky. For this very reason, NPR could have done more to give listeners a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the MEK and the plight of its members at Camp Ashraf.
UPDATE: I have been looking into the MEK coverage since the complaints first started. In late June, NPR for the first time reported on the MEK's yearly gathering in Paris, where some of the group's leaders are based.
The news peg for this story was the recent vote by the British Parliament to remove the group from its terrorist list. Tens of thousands of supporters came from all over Europe and the U.S. for a rally to promote their intent to overthrow the current government in Iran. The story, by Paris-based reporter Eleanor Beardsley, quoted MEK officials and members but did not discuss the Camp Ashraf issues.