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Why Are The New York Times' Tours Of Iran Controversial?


The New York Times is a great newspaper. It also has a gift shop, a wine club and offers travel experiences called Times Journeys that include the occasional company of Time staffers. There are trips to Austria, Shakespeare's England, historic Berlin, delicious Sicily and Iran. Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post has been imprisoned in Iran for more than 500 days. James Kirchick of Foreign Policy magazine was among those who've questioned if The Times should be involved, quote, "in a venture with an authoritarian regime holding an American journalist hostage." NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from New York. David, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Is The Times in the recreation business with a regime that they've criticized for imprisoning a U.S. reporter?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, I don't think The Times looks at it that way. It's certainly in business with a travel company that really does the heavy lifting and the logistics of these companies. And assuredly some benefit accrues to the Iranian government for that financially and also benefits by virtue of the fact that The Times is seen to be visiting it and in some ways endorsing the idea of travel to Iran. I reached out to The Times and they've decided not to comment publicly about this. But they do note they go to a number of other countries, including China and Cuba that have also been, you know, accused of repressive practices and rightly so. And they feel that they're helping to bring understanding of those cultures rather than providing an endorsement of those regimes.

SIMON: But they certainly won't put Evin Prison on the itinerary.

FOLKENFLIK: No, I think there's some restrictions on what tourists and what travel - Americans travelers can do in that country. At the same time, there are no resections on what The Times journalists who are helping to lead those tours can say.

SIMON: Has there been a contrary reaction?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's been some resistance. I mean, Ali, the brother of Jason Rezaian, has objected to this. And in fact, I understand there's some colleagues of Jason's who object to this, not really on optics but on the principle that The times, which has been, as you said, a champion of the need to release him and of the need for there to be freedom of expression and the release of political prisoners in Iran more generally. For The Times to do this somehow seemingly provides some kind of seal of endorsement for the Iranians. I did reach out a number of other human rights activists, both on journalist issues and more generally. And it was interesting how pragmatic some of them were, that the idea was that they felt that there actually needed to be more travel, more interaction with Iran as a way of trying to open up ties between Iranian people, both thought leaders and everyday people with Americans, as way of breathing some liberty and life in there and to bring some understanding of the way in which the Iranian people think back to this country. After all, many Iranians are quite sympathetic to the U.S. and kind of aspire and yearn to the kinds of values that we embrace here.

SIMON: According to reports, the Iran trips are selling fast at more than $7,000 a pop. Is this a moneymaking venture for The Times or something else?

FOLKENFLIK: This is a profitable venture for The Times. But this is not erasing the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been wiped away by the tectonic shifts in the newspaper business, things lost from such items as classified advertising, national advertising and the like. This is a very modest moneymaker for them. But they are offering this to their most passionate and well-heeled patrons, if you will, as a way of, I think, cementing a tie between the newspaper and these more affluent subscribers and readers, people who are devoted to them. You know, it'll be a modest moneymaker and more of a branding exercise than anything else.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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