Iran Leader’s Speech: News Event or PR Stunt?

Bill O’Reilly and other cable pundits derided Columbia University for extending an invite to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but that didn’t stop all three cable news networks from carrying the speech uninterrupted.

The three also carried Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s lengthy preamble, in which he denounced Ahmadinejad as a “petty, cruel dictator” for, among other things, denying the Holocaust, aiding insrugents in Iraq and plotting the destruction of Israel.

“Everyone knew Bollinger was going to be very tough on him,” says NBC News senior veep Phil Griffin, who oversees MSNBC, explaining the net’s rationale.

Chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams said MSNBC wouldn’t have taken the speech without context.

“We have no interest in just putting his views across on television — it was in the context of a controversy,” he says.

Cameras caught applause for Bollinger’s scathing attack and also for the robust applause for Ahmadinejad’s response, which offered an afternoon of analysis and punditry.

Fox News and MSNBC stuck with the story longer than CNN. Fox, which had former Ambassador John Bolton weigh in, repeatedly asked students whether allowing Ahmadinejad to speak didn’t play into his PR strategy. Anchor Shepherd Smith asked a student whether they believed Iranian audiences would see any of Bollinger’s attack — or just the applause for the Iranian president.

One irony: Even if the speech was playing into the Iranian leader’s PR strategy, Fox News was not going to pass it up.   

—Michael Learmonth in New York.

Here’s the Iran leader’s speech, where he is booed when he denies the existence of gays in his country. In fact, human rights groups say that citizens have been executed for homosexuality.

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