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.┬áLife 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.