NPR knows it. NBC knows it. Even Iran’s Fars News Agency knows it.
CNN seriously mistranslated its interview with new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and it’s turning into a scandal that won’t go away.
Nor should it go away. The network’s refusal to fix the error is an inexplicable and serious violation of journalistic ethics.
At issue is whether Rouhani used the word Holocaust in his interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and, in doing so, acknowledged the Nazi genocide. CNN says he did, and its translation allowed it to make the dramatic announcement in a headline late last month, “Iran’s new president: Yes, the Holocaust happened.”
Except Rouhani never did use the “H” word, or its Farsi equivalent. And he certainly did not acknowledge Hitler’s systematic murder of six million Jews. He referred only to generic Nazi “crimes” of questionable severity — and did so with such ambivalence that analyses in The New Republic and the Daily Beast convincingly argued the Iranian president was in fact engaged in old-fashioned Holocaust denial, albeit a more subtle version than that practiced by his outspoken predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
CNN’s false claim that “Iran’s new president has acknowledged the Holocaust,” though, set the tone for media coverage of the interview. Exculpatory headlines in major media outlets around the world announced the end of Iranian Holocaust denial. So when the radical and sometimes ridiculous Fars News Agency made noise about the translation error shortly after CNN broadcast the interview, it was easy to ignore. Fars, after all, is the same news source that once republished an Onion article as truth, and the same organization that claimed an Iranian citizen invented a functioning time machine.
But then Sohrab Ahmari, a Farsi-speaking editor at The Wall Street Journal, went on record agreeing with the Fars translation. And The Journal itself published two separate editorials calling out CNN. Arash Karami, an Iranian journalist at Al Monitor, did his own translation, and also found that Rouhani never said “Holocaust” (or, for that matter, “reprehensible,” a word that also appeared in CNN’s translation). The editor of The New York Times’s Lede blog also consulted with two Iranian-American journalists, who checked off on the Fars translation.
I asked the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert and native Farsi speaker, who was right. He concurred with the independent translations — the word “Holocaust” was not said in the interview.
When confronted with their mistake, though, CNN seemed unmoved. Officials told The Wrap and The Washington Free Beacon that the translator was hired by the Iranian government. (Why exactly CNN would think that gets them off the hook is another question.) When contacted by CAMERA, senior CNN executives stonewalled.
Meanwhile, Christiane Amanpour, who conducted the interview, went on a counter-offensive. On Twitter, she accused The Wall Street Journal, and anyone else who would challenge CNN’s translation, of being willing to “jump into bed” with Iranian extremists. And when CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked his colleague about the issue, she tersely responded that the charges were “piffle.” Saying she didn’t want to dignify the issue with a comment, Amanpour told Cooper only that “We put the entire transcript up on line…. We have his translator. I speak Persian, I know what he said. It’s ridiculous.”
But several days later, Banafsheh Keynoush, Rouhani’s translator who handled the translation for CNN, went on an interview tour of her own. To NBC’s Robert Windrem, she said without hesitation: “No, he did not use the word ‘Holocaust.’” Hinting that Amanpour indeed does know what Rouhani actually said, Windrem responded, “I think I should note on your behalf that President Rouhani speaks English, and Christiane Amanpour speaks Farsi.”
“Absolutely,” Keynoush responded.
“And I think we’ll leave it at that,” Windrem concluded.
Then Keynoush spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin. “The Iranian press subsequently challenged your use of the word Holocaust in your translation,” he said. “What do you make of this? What do you say about that?”
Again, she did not respond that the charges were “piffle.” She did not say the affair was “ridiculous.” She simply said, “Well, that is correct. And he did not use the word Holocaust.”
And then, remarkably, she told NPR that she alerted CNN to her mistake. But even when the source of the mistranslation admitted error, CNN opted not to do the same. Their reply, she said, was “Stuff happens. It’s okay.”
CNN is right. Stuff happens. But when stuff happens, other stuff — namely a correction — must happen, too. “Piffle” is not a serious or sufficient response for a professional news organization that is caught making a mistake. And the network knows this. CNN and its officials responsible for standards have a record of taking concerns about accuracy seriously and striving to meet journalism’s highest standards. CAMERA has many times brought factual errors to the network’s attention that they have addressed with laudable professionalism and promptly corrected.
So why in this case, even after NPR and NBC and The Wall Street Journal and Al Monitor and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and CNN’s own translator and others uncovered the error, won’t CNN do the right thing by broadcasting a correction, as journalistic ethics demand? Why are those who rely on CNN the last to know the truth? Is it because Amanpour’s star power trumps accuracy? Is it because the wishful idea of Iranian moderation supersedes professional norms?
Whatever the answer, it’s not too late for the network to do the right thing. CNN should signal that it cares about accuracy by broadcasting a forthright correction during Amanpour and Cooper’s programs, correcting its voice-over, publishing a correction to its online transcript, and amending its headlines and sentences that wrongly claim Rouhani acknowledged the Holocaust. Even small errors matter in journalism, but this one, though it focuses mainly on one word, is consequential. News consumers naturally want to assess the level of extremism, rationality, trustworthiness of the Iranian president. His views on the Holocaust, a well established historical fact, help answer those questions.
When Jeff Zucker took over as president of CNN, he told his staff that “We will remain true to the journalistic values that have always been a hallmark of CNN.” It’s time for the network to make clear: Is accuracy one of those values?