Times Touts Tours of Iran
by Ira Stoll
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For the price of $6,995, the New York Times is offering 13-day tours of Iran guided by Times journalist Elaine Sciolino. Promotional material for the tour on the Times website promises "luxurious hotels" and describes Tehran as a city where "the young and fashionable adopt a new trendy joie de vivre." Also on the itinerary: "a pleasant evening stroll around the colorful bazaars," along with insights into the "accomplishments" of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
The U.S. Treasury Department website advises that notwithstanding the American economic sanctions on Iran, "All transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from Iran, including the importation of accompanied baggage for personal use, payment of maintenance and living expenses and acquisition of goods or services for personal use are permitted."
The State Department, however, warns: "Some elements in Iran remain hostile to the United States. As a result, U.S. citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran...The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran."
Travelers dissatisfied with their experience on the trip may have a tough time if they try to sue. The "terms and conditions" for the trip include a "binding arbitration clause" that gives arbitrators, "not any federal, state, or local court or agency," "exclusive authority to resolve any dispute" related to the trip. A 2010 New York Times editorial described such binding arbitration clauses as "pretty unfair" and advised readers to "beware" them.
The Times promotional language says participants will "Enjoy some time haggling over spices, textiles, antiques and copper handicrafts" at the Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz before retiring to their "five-star hotel boasting stunning Persian soft furnishings." Another day is said to feature a "relaxing evening and dinner."
There's no mention at all in the Times promotional language about the tour of Iran's status as a state supporter of terrorism, of its pursuit of nuclear weapons, or of its human rights abuses. For information about those abuses, anyone considering plunking down nearly $7,000 for the pleasure of accompanying a Times journalist on a "relaxing evening and dinner" after antique shopping in Iran may want to consider, first, browsing the State Department's latest human rights report on Iran. It reports that under Iranian law, "a woman who appears in public without an appropriate headscarf (hijab) may be sentenced to lashings and fined." It also says that "The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, which may be punishable by death or flogging."
One can understand why the Times is seeking new revenue opportunities as a tour operator, since its revenues in traditional areas such as newspaper subscriptions and advertising are not growing fast enough to satisfy investors. But there is potential for this sort of thing to adversely affect the Times' journalism. How fair will Times journalism be toward those calling for tougher Iran sanctions if the sanctions would force the newspaper to cancel its lucrative luxury tours of Iran? Why are Times journalists lending their reputations, such as they are, to promotional material that describes Iran as a kind of paradise — "colorful bazaars," "trendy joie de vivre" — while skipping over the reality of other parts of Iran, like, say, Evin Prison?
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