Jul
08
2010

What Gets You Fired From CNN

Octavia Nasr has been a Mideast correspondent for CNN for 20 years, and was their senior editor of Mideast affairs. Until yesterday.

On hearing of the death of a Hezbollah leader, she posted the following on her Twitter feed:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot.

This expression of sympathy offended some, who were outraged that a journalist would say anything likethat about anyone associated with Hezbollah. Nasr explained in a follow-up on CNN's website:

I used the words "respect" and "sad" because to me, as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman's rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of "honor killing." He called the practice primitive and nonproductive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.

This was interesting background–the kind of depth one might expect from a reporter with a few decades of experience in the region. But CNN decided that this was not good enough. An internal memo explained that CNN thinks "her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward."

Now it can't be that errant Twitter messages are the problem at CNN; they recently hired Erick Erickson as a commentator, even though he had called retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter a "goat-fucking child molester." And it can't be that CNN has a problem with opinionated journalists; after all, they spent several years defending Lou Dobbs' hateful, inaccurate anti-immigrant rants.

Nasr was not fired for anything she uttered on CNN's airwaves. And it's hard to imagine that Nasr has a "credibility" problem based on her message. CNN, on the other hand, does have one, since this decisionseems to raise serious questions about exactly what sort of policy exists at the networkto handlessuch questions about "credibility."

Salon's Glenn Greenwald (7/8/10) notes that, oddly enough, there are anastonishing number of casesof people working in the "liberal media" who got into hot water for being perceived as too far to theleft. It's hard to think of many examples of corporate media careers that were ended by being too far to the right.

UPDATE: The website of Time magazine (7/6/10)–which, like CNN, is owned by the Time Warner media conglomerate–features a column by ex-CIA officer Robert Baer about Fadlallah's passing. He calls him a "central figure in modern Middle Eastern history," and notes that the Reagan administration was wrong about his actual role within Hezbollah:

In the 1980s, Fadlallah was at the top of the Reagan administration's enemy list. The White House mistakenly believed he was the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group the U.S. was at war with at the time.

And:

The problem is, there never has been a shred of evidence that Fadlallah was responsible for the Marine bombing, other than his preaching against foreign occupation. But in that sense, he was no different from Lebanon's other Muslim clerics who also did not want foreign troops in the country. Fadlallah was with near certainty not involved in Hezbollah's terrorist attacks in Lebanon. In fact, he complained privately about the Iranians–through their proxy, the Islamic Jihad Organization–taking hostages in his country, believing it was un-Islamic.

Baer's Nasr-esque conclusion should provoke considerable alarm, though:

But at the end of the day, he was an independent Arab voice, a Shi'a Muslim courageous enough to stand up against Iran. In that sense, we should regret his passing.

I understand the difference between a reporter (Nasr's former role) and a columnist (Baer's current gig at Time)–though a shorter version of Baer's column appeared as an obituary for Fadlallah on the Milestones page of Time's print edition (7/19/10). So will Baer's column attract similar outrage? If not, why not?

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.