CNN’s error of judgement

CNN has fired its Senior Editor of Middle East Affairs of twenty years’ standing, Octavia Nasr, after she tweeted this:

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

The reference is to Fadlallah, a prominent Lebanese Shia cleric, who died on July 4th. Nasr later explained her comments in a detailed blog post, in which she regretted trying to encapsulate a complex thought in a 140-character tweet.

CNN is not my favourite news source, and I hold no candle for Nasr, but to fire her shows a lack of judgement on CNN’s part that far overshadows Nasr’s indiscretion.

It reminds me of what happened when Barbara Plett, a BBC reporter in Ramallah, admitted crying at the death of Yasser Arafat. This is the transcript of Plett’s report. There was an outcry following its broadcast in 2004. An internal BBC enquiry later found that she had broken the BBC’s rules on impartiality (report here). Plett was mothballed for a while, and then reposted to a different part of the world.

But she was not fired.

Journalism is a difficult job. The days of rigid impartiality are, it often seems, over: in their place have come a welter of consciously partial news sources. In old media that shows itself in the nonsense extremes of, for example, Fox News and Press TV – and the very raison d’etre of new media is to supply multiple voices on every issue, to cover all angles. The onus has shifted, to a greater or lesser degree, onto the news consumer to take responsibility for filtering and processing the information they receive.

In claiming that Nasr’s credibility had been ‘compromised’ by her tweet, CNN is wrong. Nasr’s credibility is, rather, enhanced by it – not because Fadlallah was necessarily an admirable figure, but because her tweet demonstrates that she grasps nuance, and understands that the profoundly complex and contradictory realm of Middle East politics is not populated by one-dimensional figures who are purely good or purely evil, but by ordinary human beings who can hold outrageous, racist views and praise those who murder innocent civilians while simultaneously supporting progressive causes and benefiting their co-religionists and wider society. Life is not black and white. You are not either “for us or against us”.

The BBC placed more value on retaining the skills and expertise of Plett – who, undoubtedly, became a better, more cautious journalist because of the controversy – than on satisfying political calls for her to go. In doing so, they recognized the value of always trying to seek impartiality, but the unlikelihood of a single individual – let alone an entire organization – ever being able to achieve it.

By firing Octavia Nasr, CNN has, in contrast, shown itself to be a deeply reactionary, conservative organization – either more interested in toeing party-political lines than in seeking the truth, or (somehow worse) believing itself to be impartial, and thus perfect, already.

CNN has soiled its journalistic credentials, and rendered itself untrustworthy. More fool them.


  1. Eddie Taylor

    Excellent piece, Matthew. It’s incredible that a journalist can now be accused of bias by expressing sadness at the passing of another human being – not least one she had met and who, by all accounts, treated her with respect, courtesy and decency.

    Whatever his views, and however unpalatable some of them may have been, he was indeed a “giant” of his country’s political scene, and to suggest that sorrow at his death is some kind of ringing endorsement of each of his policies reflects more on the forces at play in the American media than on the integrity of Ms Nasr.

    I recall a string of talking heads in the US paying tribute to Jerry Falwell when he died, and this was a man who, within 48 hours of 9/11 found a way to blame it on feminists, the gay community and those attempting to protect civil liberties.

    What is also lost amid the fog of outrage is that Ms Nasr is a Christian, and hardly someone who would be a willing mouthpiece for the views of Hezbollah.

    It’s a regrettable episode, but also a very instructive one.

  2. Neha

    Very Insightful. Today, I believe, that we have no room for unbiased opinions, despite our loud flags of liberty waving high and proud. Ms Nasr’s tweet is a bold example of her unbiased opinions. To shed a tear for someone despite who the person may have been, is being unbiased beyond a doubt.

    The channel has erred by proving, by firing her, their absolute intolerance of thoughts opposing that of theirs.

    While this may not bring down their TRP, it still speaks a lot on their principles and practices.

  3. Matthew Teller

    Many thanks, Eddie – much appreciated.

    Thank you, Neha, for dropping by. Let me clarify: I don’t think Nasr’s tweet was “unbiased”, as you say. It was partial, and she should not have posted it. However, I think it was nonetheless a (flawed) expression of valid journalistic attributes – perspective, understanding and humanity. For that reason, she should still be at her post.

  4. Neo

    Brilliant….Absolutely Brilliant Piece!!!!
    Octavia, you Deserve Nothing but the Best, and Goodluck for your Future Endeavours, and Thank you for Putting the Middle East and Lebanon on the map…at least…doing your best to…….
    As for CNN….Shame On You…..Shame…..
    actually it reminds of your old Slogan… “This is CNN…we MAKE News”
    anyways…bottom line is..this is the true testament as to why the British have ALWAYS had a Dominating Advantage over the Americans…in almost EVERYTHING…
    Yes it’s true you people made Burgers and Blue Jeans possible…THANK YOU VERY MUCH…..You Saved the Day….Yet again!….but then again we won’t throw away our food and clothing just for that…..maaaaaaaaaaaan i frankly ran out of metaphors to describe how your ideologies are nothing but utter ***** anyways..this’ll do ^^ bye now

  5. Matthew Teller

    Uh, thanks Neo… I think… 😉

  6. Hal

    What her firing demonstrates, I would suggest, is the long arm of the Israel Lobby in the US media. You don’t fly in the face of the Lobby and last for long.

  7. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for your comment, Hal.

    I know some people see sinister enemies round every corner, influencing, controlling, meddling, sabotaging. Personally, I was never one for conspiracy theories. CNN rushed to judgement.

    Their loss.

  8. Nasri Atallah

    I guess what it boils down to here is that CNN has shareholders to answer to whereas the Beeb doesn’t. Quite sad really. But I don’t think CNN had much journalistic credibility to start with. It’s the E! of the news world.

  9. Abeer

    Cant people still respect someone even if his views are different to theirs?
    I think CNN failed there, people are not Good or Evil, they are much more complex than that, and if fadlala had views offends some people, yet we have to see the other side of him, he was a big force in his country and a lot of people respect him for that,

  10. Matthew Teller

    Nice line, Nasri!

    Thanks for dropping by, Abeer. It’s a fair point, but the issue here is not simply one of disagreeing with a certain political standpoint: Fadlallah was outspokenly racist and violent (if approving of murder can be equated with violence). He also held other views, but Nasr should have known that to praise such a figure in public would expose her to controversy, at the very least.

    I hold no candle for either Fadlallah or Nasr. It’s simply that CNN have made a mistake here. Nasr should have been disciplined, not fired.

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