From left, Aram Arkun, Charlie Mahtesian, Eric Hacopian, Carla Garapedian and Ken Dilanian (Ken Martin Photo)

Insightful Journalists’ Panel Hosted by Mirror-Spectator at Tufts Is Well Attended

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MEDFORD, Mass. — The Joyce Cummings Center at Tufts University, on Friday, October 27, was the site of the journalists’ panel sponsored by the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, kicking off its 90th anniversary celebrations.

The  event, attended by about 120 people, was titled “Media Coverage of Armenia and Karabakh,” with panelists Ken Dilanian of NBC News, filmmaker and former broadcast journalist Carla Garapedian, Eric Hacopian of CivilNet and Charlie Mahtesian of Politico.

From left, Aram Arkun, Eric Hacopian, Carla Garapedian and Ken Dilanian (Ken Martin Photo)

The moderator of the panel was Aram Arkun, the managing editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and the executive director of the Tekeyan Cultural Association. Arkun thanked Prof. Bruce Boghosian of Tufts University, who currently is in Yerevan serving as president of the American University of Armenia, for arranging to hold the event at Tufts, before introducing the speakers.

The panelists, each from a different segment of the media, offered their own views about why Armenia and Artsakh were failing to gain traction in the US media, while also pointing out some successes.

Charlie Mahtesian (Ken Martin Photo)

Mahtesian, the senior politics editor at Politico, had previously worked at NPR. He spoke about what attracts attention in US media outlets. Incidentally, he was part of the Mirror-Spectator’s anniversary celebrations in 2012, when he received the newspaper’s Award of Excellence.

Mahtesian said many of his childhood friends from the Armenian Sisters’ Academy outside Philadelphia ask him, “Where the hell are you? Where is the media? Where is the coverage? The world has forgotten us.”

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The answer, he and others stressed, is not unique to Armenians: money is tight and fewer and fewer international stories receive coverage.

Said Mahtesian, “That conversation begins with talking about the news industry and the circumstances we are under. Our economics are in flux. Ken [Dilanian] can tell you a lot of news organizations are struggling. … Newspapers are dying every day. Most [outlets] are a shell of what they used to be and nowhere is that clearer than on the foreign bureaus of most news organizations. It’s not the way it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago. …  There are just no bodies on these desks. They are all stretched incredibly thin.”

In addition, he said, the Caucasus as a region is an unfamiliar territory, plus its geopolitical history is wildly complicated. “As we all know, we’re dealing with a complicated situation in a complicated part of the world. There is not a whole lot of familiarity … even among those people writing about foreign affairs,” he added.

“In many ways it’s the last region they’ve ever thought about,” he said, with many covering Europe, the Middle East or Asia, leaving them without “a deep-dive familiarity with Armenia or Artsakh.”

There are other hot places politically experiencing this “lack of familiarity” now, including Kosovo, Niger and even Northern Ireland.

There are differences between media outlets, he advised. “It’s important for the Armenian-American community to have a better grasp of the media ecosystem,” Mahtesian said.

For example, he said, in places like Boston and Los Angeles, the main local papers, the Boston Globe or the Los Angeles Times, cover Armenia because of the large Armenian communities in those cities. In other places, he said, Armenians should reach out to the local media and familiarize them. “We need to educate them and that’s ok. And that starts not with angry emails to those journalists who are covering it, but rather [try] to establish relationships,” Mahtesian noted. “If you’re trying to reach journalists … you don’t want to reach out once in your life angry and question their integrity.”

The lack of coverage irks him too, he said. Even Politico, which has global coverage now, “has other priorities. I understand how it works, what It looks like under the hood. Nevertheless, it is frustrating.”

He spoke about trying to advocate coverage at Politico for when President Biden signed the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2021. His colleagues, he recalled, were not quite sure why it was important. “It’s a great story. It’s an important moment in politics and here’s why,” he told the newsroom. Upon further prompting, he ended up writing a first-person account, explaining what political and international forces and machinations were in play against the recognition of that genocide for so many years.

“It was probably the biggest story I will write in my career traffic-wise. One lesson I took away from it … is to tell the best type of story, which is always the personal human story, rather than the dry, bloodless  policy thing,” he said.

Of course, the next step is what can be done about it. “There are some things that as a community we can do. I’m already seeing this and it is a hopeful sign. It is dominating social media. It is essential we dominate that space.”

He called social media “the great equalizer.”

“It won the narrative with storytelling,” he said, affecting policy. “I felt diaspora Armenians were incredibly effective there” during the Artsakh war.

Dr. Carla Garapedian (Ken Martin Photo)

Next up was Dr. Carla Garapedian. Garapedian has produced documentaries on the Armenian Genocide (“Screamers”), as well as documentaries on Iran, North Korea, Chechnya and Afghanistan. She has previously worked at the BBC, where she was the first American anchor. She is working on a movie based on Eric Bogosian’s book, Operation Nemesis, with Dustin Hoffman and Christoph Waltz. (The work is currently at a standstill pending the resolution of the SAG-AFTRA strike.)

Garapedian noted that she was proud to be a part of the Mirror-Spectator’s 90th anniversary. “I look forward to opening up the newspaper every week,” she said.

She offered a personal anecdote about her first experience with the media’s coverage of the Armenian Genocide, during its 60th anniversary, when she was a teen.

“In Los Angeles, our local PBS channel agreed to broadcast a documentary by J. Michael Hagopian called ‘The Forgotten Genocide.’ It featured academics and survivors. The week of the broadcast I took a call for my father at our home in North Hollywood. It was a representative of the State Department. This gentlemen said the State Department believed that the documentary should not air because it could ‘damage us Turkish relations,’” she recalled.

Her father, Leo Garapedian, a journalism professor, reached out to a friend in Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s office. The mayor, hearing about the interference, interceded and the documentary was broadcast as scheduled on KCET.

The whole episode baffled her as a teen. “I was confused about why my country would behave this way,” Garapedian said. The series of events, in retrospect, she said, taught her about “the power of the media” and why governments fear it.

Garapedian was in place when much of the world first heard about Armenia, in 1988, when it was still part of the USSR, after the devastating earthquake there. At that time, she was in London working as a news producer for Channel 4. “I was charged with finding someone to get on live TV quick,” she said. Armenia, however, was closed to the outside world and one which few people in her orbit there knew.

From left, Eric Hacopian, Carla Garapedian and Ken Dilanian share a light moment (Ken Martin Photo)

Garapedian described how many people saw Armenia and the region: “a faraway exotic place within the Russian orbit.”

She continued, “As for me, I was able to get an eyewitness to the earthquake, Ani King-Underwood. I didn’t tell my boss she was actually Armenian because when she heard her name, King-Underwood, she thought ‘good British girl.’ Without her, I doubt we would have covered the story at all.”

In 2005, commissioning editors for “Storyville,” ran into an Armenian filmmaker in Prague, Vardan Hovanessian, who had exclusive footage of soldiers from the first Artsakh war. “The editor though this could make an interesting documentary. So the BBC funded that feature-length documentary which came to be called “A Story of People in War and Peace.”

The same BBC commissioning editor also commissioned “Screamers,” Garapedian’s massively successful documentary trailing System of a Down lead singer Serge Tankian as he explored the Armenian Genocide’s legacy through his grandfather’s story.

“That was two documentaries about Armenians the same year. The result was, not surprisingly, the BBC got a torrent of complaints from the British-Turkish community,” Garapedian said.

The complainants, she said, asked why the BBC didn’t give the Turkish side of the Genocide. “Well,” she replied, “there aren’t two sides to the Genocide. It happened. Should we get the Nazi point of view to the Holocaust?”

She made a parallel with the Artsakh story 30-some years later when many in the Armenian community, she said, think the recent coverage of the Artsakh war and later blockade and ethnic cleansing were pro-Azerbaijan because of “moral equivalence and both-side-ism.”

“I don’t think the BBC was alone in this. But to call it a ‘breakaway republic’ takes us back to the late ’80s, not 2023, and the idea of restoring territorial integrity, sorry, sovereignty of Azerbaijan, was a way of framing the issue. It was as if the people of Artsakh never had the right of self-determination,” she added.

In addition, she observed, there was a tendency to minimize the situation, including the nine-month-long blockade of the enclave by Azerbaijani forces. Politico, she cited, represented the blockade as “weeks of deadly clashes,” rather than what it was.

This ran counter to the characterization of the International Court of Justice ruling in February that said the blockade caused an imminent threat to the people of Artsakh, she noted. Similarly, she cited Judge Luis Moreno Ocampo, who in a lengthy opinion released in the spring, referred to that blockade as a “genocide.”

Many Armenians now, Garapedian said, complain that what happened to Artsakh did not get a fraction of the coverage of what is happening in Gaza now.

“The stakes were perceived to be so minor that the mobilization of resources by media organizations was simply not there,” Garapedian said.

She said European coverage was better because the location seemed more European. By contrast, for American outlets, she said, “It was another far-away place, not really relevant.” In addition, she stressed, the deployment of a vigorous Azerbaijani disinformation campaign “can’t be minimized.”

She suggested that Armenians use the word “indigenous” to frame their ties to Artsakh. “Indigenous people fighting for their lands has a different ring,” she said.

Bringing the talk full-circle back to the call from the State Department several decades ago, and comparing it to Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that Armenia’s territorial integrity should be respected, she concluded: “It’s now almost 50 years later. Has that calculus changed? I wonder.”

Next up was Ken Dilanian of NBC News, who is the justice and intelligence correspondent for NBC News, based in Washington. He is also the grandson of an Armenian Legionnaire who served with the French after the Armenian Genocide.

Ken Dilanian (Ken Martin Photo)

Dilanian, humble and softspoken, said it was probably the first time he had addressed an Armenian audience. “I’m very proud of my heritage and my grandfather who fought in the Legion,” he said.

“My dad grew up in the ’30s and ’40s, in the time of great assimilation. He barely spoke Armenian even though his father never spoke English,” he joked, saying it made for an interesting dynamic.

“Consider me a lapsed Armenian. … It’s been an interesting exercise thinking about why the media — and as Charlie [Mahtesian] said, the media is —we aren’t covering this really significant and tragic and important story. The reality is … even if there wasn’t a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war in the Middle East and a former president facing four criminal indictments who is running for president again, even if those things didn’t exist, I don’t know if the story would have broken though,” Dilanian said.

One foreign correspondent for NBC, Matt Bradley, did a story on the Artsakh situation, for the network’s streaming service, he noted.

Dilanian explained that for broadcast television, the cost of foreign coverage is prohibitive. “TV is expensive. Particularly when you go to a war zone, you need security. TV is a big endeavor,” he said. Therefore, he suggested, there needs to be a certain amount of familiarity or marketability for a story to be worth it for the network.

He also concurred with Mahtesian that it is not just Armenian issues that are not covered fully. Currently, he said, there is a genocide in Sudan, among other place, and yet, there is limited interest in foreign issues amongst Americans. “Let’s face it. Americans can’t [even] find Ireland on a map. We are not great in geography,” he said. “We are all in a business where we are trying to grab an audience, grab eyeballs.”

NBC, he said, pays marketing specialists to see what topics would grab the most audience and Armenia does not make the cut for the news, he said.

As many noted, the story’s coverage contrasts tremendously with the current conflagration between Israel and Palestinians, which is getting wall-to-wall coverage. “One of the biggest reasons is that American strategic reasons are implicated in a major way,” he said; “There are American troops on the ground in Israel. … That just isn’t the case in the Artsakh situation for better or worse,” he noted.

Dilanian also added, “I wonder how much that the fact that the Russians are involved and the long Armenian Russian alliance influences the way American media looks at the issue.”

Ken Dilanian, at the podium, and Charlie Mahtesian (Ken Martin Photo)

He added, however, that the issue comes up in the State Department briefing every day but the answers often don’t make the news. He labeled those the “unforgiving nature of geopolitics” and “neck-snapping” speed of changing stories. There are only “a few big stories we concentrate on,” he said, adding “very few of those stories are foreign news at all.”

Dilanian’s major focus in recent months has been the story of former President Donald Trump’s multiple indictments. Even that story, major by any standard, he added, now is taking a back burner to the Israel-Gaza war. “Since the Israel thing happened, this story has faded a little bit,” he said.

“If the displacement of tens of thousands of people didn’t get televisions coverage, because that’s a TV story, my gosh — the emotion — if that didn’t make it, I don’t know what will,” he wondered.

Dilanian recalled that Arkun had asked him if demonstrations by Armenians helped increase coverage of the issue. “It can’t hurt. If they [people in newsrooms] are wondering why there are people outside our building downstairs, it might cause them to do some research and learn about it,” Dilanian said.

Panelist Eric Hacopian is a political analyst and consultant. He’s the owner of EDH and Associates, a Southern California-based Democratic consulting firm. Since 2017 he has been living in Armenia and is currently the host of the “Insight Show” on CivilNet television, which reaches as many as 80,000-100,000 every week.

Eric Hacopian (Ken Martin Photo)

He started by talking about journalism in Armenia.

“Journalism in Armenia generally tends to be quite poor, for the most part,” he said because of a “lack of understanding of the broader world,” he said. He quipped, “Anyone under 30 is dramatically better than over 30. If Armenia were full of 26-year-old women, we would be Switzerland in five minutes.”

The humorous Hacopian said that in Armenia, like the rest of the Caucasus, there is an inflated sense of importance. He cited as an example that he had recently flown into Tbilisi, Georgia, for a conference. A sign at the airport proclaimed it as “where Europe started,” giving short shrift to ancient Greece or Rome.

He next spoke about a recent program on the French television station, on which a French actor had stated that of the 100,000 to 120,000 Artsakh population, 30,000 were children and had asked, “What would the coverage have been, if there had been 30,000 dogs that were blockaded?” He replied, “They would have gotten a lot more coverage than what we would have got.”

Hacopian stressed that Armenians need to take reasonability for not being able to sell the story widely. “Nobody cares about other tragedies. You care about your own,” he said. “Eighty percent of the media problems are our fault. You are not telling the proper story.

As for the 20 percent, he said, “There is a very particular angst or pushback you get from what I call Anglo-Saxon media. For many of these people, we tend to be too dark for the right and too light for the left.”

The diaspora is also varied, and not always relatable to outsiders. “For the average European, if they know an Armenian, it’s a very wealthy jeweler in Belgium or it’s the Kardashians. It is not the farmer in Artsakh with seven kids that makes a subsistent living. The stereotype of the Armenian is not a sympathetic figure,” he said, “losing from both sides.”

Starting in December last year, he said, he and a small group started trying to promote the story of the blockade, but it wasn’t enough. “We failed miserably because frankly no one cared, no one knew where we were, and it was very easy to confuse the issues. We were essentially trying to catch up with 30 years’ worth of work that wasn’t done in nine months,” he said. Only the Ocampo report, he said, brought proper focus to the issue.

He suggested using social media rather than traditional media.

“One of our colleagues,” he said, spoke to the head of Edelman, the biggest PR firm in the world. “His response to this was, ‘Are you an idiot? Why are you calling me? Why don’t you just get Kim Kardashian?”

There are four billion people on social media, he said. One out of four follow Kardashian or one of her sisters on social media. Hacopian did reach out to her through Eric Israelian and “it had impact,” he said.

“You have to think of the media in a much more elastic way,” he said.  Traditional media is dying while social media is out of control and “oddly democratic,” he added.

“They [Azeri PR spinners] are very good at what happens behind closed doors,” he said, noting that they can be tripped up. One major faux pas was when the Azerbaijani presidential election results of 2013 were released accidentally one day before the elections were actually held!

Things in Armenia are more positive than we in the diaspora hear, he noted, adding that there are programs taking non-Armenians to the country, increasing familiarization so that they are not “writing stories simply about emergencies.” Also, he added, there are four IT startups in Armenia with a combined valuation of $18 billion.

“What Ken [Dilanian] was too kind to say was no one gives a sh!t about you [as an Armenian] because you’re not relevant so what you have to do is make yourself relevant,” he said. For example, one way to position the story is make it about the pivot of Armenia from Russia to the West. “You don’t try to counter their prejudices; you use them,” he advised.

Hacopian added, “And then, if we’re being really critical of ourselves, if you really look at it, the entire narrative telling the Armenian side for the past 108 years is a total failure. [Instead] once you get people to come over and understand the issues, we win them over. Not because we are geniuses but because we had the better end of the argument.”

As an example he cited a tourism poll, which noted that only 25 percent of people polled were willing to come to Armenia, but 99 percent — the highest number ever recorded — would happily come back after the initial visit.

He added that instead of talking about the Armenian Genocide, emphasis should be put on “how you came back from it. The children, grandchildren of genocide survivors are leading the world in IT and chip design,” he said.

The other ways Armenians introduce themselves to others is saying they are the first Christian nation — a mistake, Hacopian said.

“Most of the Western world is becoming more and more secular,” he said. “What you’re saying is I am not really modern.”

Instead, he said, everything should be “about making the country relevant.”

He advocated what he called DIEM, diplomacy, intelligence, economy and military. “Those are the things you have to focus on,” Hacopian said.

During the lengthy question and answer session, references were made to the use of K Street Washington lobbyists by Azerbaijani and Turkish governments against the Armenian and Artsakh narrative.

“For a small community we have some dynamic voices who do good work down there,” Mahtesian said. “Armenians have a real grassroots lobby and members of Congress listen to that.”

“When they get lots of call and they get questions, They understand those are real votes as opposed to Astroturf politics created by K Street,” Mahtesian said.

Hacopian, in answer to another question, said Armenians should not get caught up in a “magical notion of unity” among its people. The diaspora, he said, is so disparate because it could be “a cab driver in Buenos Aires, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan or Cher.”

For example, he added that 300 Jewish Americans shut down the US Congress by demonstrating against Israel’s actions against Palestinians.

Instead, he said, all Armenians should try to make sure that Armenian is “never isolated, poor or weak.” Anyone helping those goals is doing their job. “Let’s not have unreasonable standards that can never be met. You’re either doing the work toward those three things or you’re not,” he added.

Garapedian concurred, as he referred to Garo Paylan who is touring the US, saying “Our goal must be to support the territorial integrity of Armenia, the democracy of Armenia, even if we don’t like who is in power,” she said. Canceling out politicians, she quoted him, is “not a luxury we can afford.”

“Unity in the goal of maintaining Armenia,” is important now, she said.

“The youth of Armenia is our future and we support them,” Garapedian said.

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