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06.26.09

How Jacko Helps the Mullahs

Mark Sanford isn't the only person relishing the King of Pop's demise—national-security experts are warning that his death could distract from Iran's increasing crackdown on democracy.

The jokes popped up almost immediately that Mark Sanford was the luckiest guy on earth after word broke that Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack. But the notion that Jackson's death, which preempted virtually all other news coverage on the cable networks last night, is sucking up media attention from other matters carries a dark edge to it as well. National-security experts are warning that without sustained attention on Iran, its repressive tactics could grow more deadly in the coming days.

The Jackson story, paired with Farrah Fawcett's death and Sanford's own scandal, “without a doubt” poses a danger in Iran, according to Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and former Bush administration official.

“It’s a sad commentary that celebrity still trumps national security in news coverage, but that’s the world we live in,” says former Bush official Michael Rubin.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Rubin said the issue was already a hot topic among his colleagues in the Middle East.

“To put it this way, the gods are not in favor of hope and change,” Rubin said. “Unfortunately in Iran people are going to prison, but when a tree falls in the forest and there's no one to hear it, the pressure goes away.”

Rubin cited Sudan as an example of where international pressure, encouraged by heavy media coverage, helped force the government to significantly reduce violence.

“It's a sad commentary that celebrity still trumps national security in news coverage, but that’s the world we live in,” he said.

It's not just Rubin at the right-leaning AEI who has voiced concern. National-security blogger Spencer Ackerman, a prominent commentator on the progressive side, also raised the issue on his site.

“I think we can agree that the Iranian regime benefits from the media rush to memorialize, explore, and reflect upon Michael Jackson and his legacy,” Ackerman wrote in a blog post last night. In an email interview, Ackerman told The Daily Beast that “anything that takes Twitter bandwidth away from [the Iran election] is bad for the opposition, and anything that distracts the cable networks from showing images of the crackdown is similarly bad.” He added that the international media distractions could give the regime "more room to violently suppress its opposition during a critical phase.”

News of Jackson's death comes just as Iran's crackdown appears to be ramping up. Today, the Guardian Council decisively ruled that the election results were legitimate (the “healthiest” vote since the 1979 revolution), paving the way for a more harsh response to protests, which have already largely been suppressed by violence. An Iranian cleric today went so far as to call for the execution of “rioters,” a phrase used by the ruling regime to dismiss the demonstrators. Foreign journalists have been banned from Iran while local reporters have been arrested, indicating the importance to Iran's hardline government of keeping their actions out of the international press.

A spokesperson for the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights, Hadi Ghaemi, said that the intense international media attention on Iran “does have a great impact on how the government treats the protesters,” but said he could not comment on American domestic issues.

“It's not something we can really do anything about,” Ghaemi said of media coverage of Jackson's death. “I suppose I'm concerned, but the world is a big place and things happen.”

It's not the first time Michael Jackson has been accused of sucking up press coverage of more serious events. In a memorable comedy routine in 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle suggested that the Gloved One was working in league with President George W. Bush to distract from more politically explosive news.

“Every time the war is going out of control, the economy is bad, and something is bad with the world at large, it's always these moments in history that Michael Jackson will coincidentally [molest] a kid," Chappelle told the audience.

Of course, there might be a way to combine the coverage. As Middle East expert Juan Cole noted on his blog Informed Comment today, Michael Jackson had extensive ties to the region, was quite popular in the Persian Gulf, and reportedly converted to Islam in 2008. In her autobiography, Persepolis, Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi described being questioned by Islamic hardliners as a child for wearing a Michael Jackson button. She managed to convince them it was Malcolm X instead.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.