Iranian Fake News in the New York Times. How Mullahs’ Regime Infiltrates Western Media.
I expose Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times as an Ayatollah-aligned fraud who violated journalistic ethics by not disclosing a close personal relationship with the subject of a story. I then explore a network of pro-Regime journalists working in tandem with Erdbrink to manipulate western public opinion.
Wednesday’s New York Times features the unlikely tale of Yalda Moayeri. After years of struggling with men and dealing with “mansplaining colleagues” Moayeri has to now face the ultimate obstacle — President Donald J. Trump.
The Iranian photographer felt “cheated and abused” after Trump tweeted an anti-government graphic featuring a picture Moayeri originally took.
40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future. pic.twitter.com/bA8YGsw9LA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2019
“I did not take this risk to have someone using it to pressure us Iranians even further.” — Yalda Moayeri in the NYT story
Erdbrink then goes on to paint a picture of a person, who is neither against nor for the regime. Just an ordinary woman who isn’t too keen on being associated with a controversial figure like President Trump.
Basic due diligence quickly dispels this notion. Moayeri is a staunch supporter of the Regime. Her own homepage describes Imam Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s murderous regime, as a “justified and loved leader of revolution”. She was presiding over a photo exhibition ran by Basij mobilization centers. Basij, or The Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed, is a paramilitary militia created by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. It answers directly to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Moayeri is likely a member of Basij herself. Unsurprisingly her portfolio features an album of Basij militia-women, likely from an earlier assignment. Photographer’s Instagram also features a Basij woman from the album, which should have alarmed any credible journalist.
Moayeri’s Instagram post featuring a Basij militia-woman shooting an AK-47 type assault rifle
Moayeri has been featured in countless state-run panels, reports, competitions and exhibitions. Iran’s Paris embassy organized an exhibition where she presented her work on Iraqi Shia Muslims on the day of Ashura. An event that has been weaponized by the Regime to influence Shia populations around the world for geopolitical gain.
She was sent to cover lives of Hezbollah fighters during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Her blog leaves no doubt as to her allegiance — she calls Hezbollah terrorists “martyrs”. While a lot of the work appears to have been scrubbed, this picture of a child at a Hezbollah rally credited to Moayeri is still available online.
fragment of a picture credited to Yalda Moayeri (یلدا معیری) depicting a child at a Lebanon Hezbollah rally
But it gets worse for Erdbrink. Moayeri is a friend of his. A close friend. Their friendship spans over a decade. How did they meet? In high-school Moayeri established an intimate friendship with Newsha Tavakolian who happens to be Erdbrink’s spouse.
Newsha Tavakolian and Yalda Moayeri during an interview for Iranian Students’ News Agency
Tavakolian is a photographer too, there’s a long record of her and Moayeri working together. As recently as 2017 they attended an Iran-focused art exhibition) in Arles, France.
Tavakolian was also tasked with covering Hezbollah in Lebanon during the 2006 war. An archived copy of Erdbrink’s no longer available blog, reveals he accompanied Tavakolian during her Lebanon expedition. He calls Hezbollah a “resistance movement”. Further solidifying the notion that the 3 friends are all ideologically aligned with Iran’s regime.
Tavakolian is unlikely to be oblivious to her husband’s work for the NYT either — her photography has been featured in up to 45 different Erdbrink NYT articles.
Analysis of Facebook activity also confirms Erdbrink, Moayeri and Tavakolian are all friends and have engaged with each other over the years.
The NYT handbook of ethics clearly states — “staff members may not write about people to whom they are related by blood or marriage or with whom they have close personal relationships”.
Erdbrink is no stranger to allegations of journalistic misconduct. He has been called a “veteran regime mouthpiece”, said to be “pimping for the regime”, and shown to make deceptive claims about Trump’s travel ban.
But Erdbrink’s deception might go deeper. My investigation establishes reasonable suspicion that Erdbrink is coordinating with a number pro-Regime journalists and organizations to help spread fake news.
First let’s look at Mohammad Ali Shabani of Al-Monitor. The DC-based outlet is known to publish articles whitewashing authoritative regimes. Its founder and CEO Jamal Daniel has been dubbed Assad’s Front Man.
(note that all times are given in GMT)
Shabani wrote the first story to be published on Moayeri. It started making rounds on twitter around 19:46 on Tuesday Febuary 12, 7 hours after Moayeri Instagram post dated at 11:58. But upon inspecting Al-Monitor's HTML markup - the article is timestamped at 07:42. That is, 4 hours before Moayeri's Instagram post! The timestamp likely dates article's initial creation in the publishing system, suggesting the story was already being written before Moayeri posted on Instagram.
relevant portion of the HTML markup, stylized (note: 3:42 GMT-04:00 is 7:42 GMT)
NYT was the second publication to cover this a few hours later. Why would Erdbrink let such a no-name publication run with it first? Shabani and Erdbrink are no strangers. Erdbrink has written a few stories for the NYT quoting Shabani as an expert. Most notably a piece trying to present a new friendlier Ayatollah Khamenei.
The likely coordination goes further. Sadra Mohaqeq, who happens to be verified, was the first to tweet about Moayeri’s Instagram post at 12:25 (27 minutes after Moayeri's post). Sadra and Erdbrink aren't strangers. He's one of his first follows and the two have chatted on Twitter. He's no stranger to Moayeri either. They are Facebook friends and he liked her 2012 profile picture. Less than 2 minutes later Sara Moradi Pour tweets about it. Also Facebook friends with Moayeri.
Just 11 minutes later at 12:38 Voices Against Sanctions tweets about Moayeri. VAS is an organization trying to prevent sanctions against Iran. It has seen overwhelming support from Iranian celebrities, filmmakers, writers and musicians (unsurprisingly Al-Monitor is the best source for this). In a strictly controlled country like Iran this is a surefire sign of government approval and orchestration.
معيري عكاس اين عكس هستم... به عنوان يك ايراني كه هر روز بيشتر از تحريمهاي ايالات متحده آسيب ميبيند... و به دليل قانون منع مسافرت آقاي ترامپ سالهاست از ديدار پدر و مادرش محروم است، ديدن اين عكس در پشت توييت آقاي ترامپ و پمپئو و هر سياستمدار آمريكايي شرمندگي زيادي به همراه دارد pic.twitter.com/fuS5o5jkRg— Voices Against Sanctions (@IranianVAS) February 12, 2019
The first English tweet appears at 12:49 by Sussan Tahmasebi an Iranian Tehran and DC-based “human rights activist”. An analysis of Facebook activity reveals she's very likely to be acquainted with Moayeri and her BFF, Erdbrink's spouse Newsha Tavakolian. I was blocked by Sussan Tahmasebi after informing her of the many problems about this story.
At 12:56 Shabani tweets about Moayeri's Instagram post, as if organically stumbling upon it.
Perhaps the first real interest appears only at 13:01 by Suzanne Maloney a self described "Iran Junkie" of the Brookings Institution. Although she is suspiciously consistent in her anti-American spin and is familiar with most culprits, my investigation did not reveal anything substantial. Likely just a useful idiot.
A couple other Tehran journalists related to Erdbrink pick up the story. Borzou Daragahi of the Independent who is friends with Tavakolian and Erdbrink. Negar Mortazavi also of the Independent and acquainted with the same Tehran clique. Her bias and willingness to kiss up to the Regime is well-recognized. Journalist’s departure from VOA has been rumored to be a result of an FBI investigation. Delphine Minoui, a French journalist who is friends with Tavakolian.
Shabani only tweets about his story at 19:46. The story features a paragraph on social media's response to Moayeri's post. This might explain why he sat on a pre-written story for hours. They had to create social media engagement before publishing. For Erdbrink this also creates some deniability of it having been his story all along. The NYT article makes its first appearance on Twitter at 23:02, the second (to Al-Monitor's) write-up to be published on the story. NYT treatment does its magic, story starts getting a little bit of real attention amongst westerners. In no time all major publications feature it.
I call for an immediate firing of Thomas Erdbrink from The New York Times and a careful examination of his past journalistic activity. Other names featured in this story should also be investigated for signs of journalistic misconduct.
Whether they are conspiring to spread fake news or just happen to be a well-connected clique of propagandists and useful idiots, one thing is for sure — the coverage of Iran in western media is likely severely compromised.
This needs to change!