Octavia Nasr, CNN's senior editor of Mideast affairs, has been fired for sending a tweet praising Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah. The Muslim cleric, who died Sunday in Lebanon, had a mixed legacy. He endorsed suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and his teachings inspired the founders of Hezbollah, though he was "never part of its formal hierarchy." At the same time, he took a strong stand on several women's issues, issuing fatwas against "honor" killings and female circumcision—positions that angered some hard-liners.
After his death, Nasr tweeted "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” In a flash, Israel supporters denounced the message calling her a "cheerleader for Hezbollah." Before she was fired, she posted this explanation on CNN:
Reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and a provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East.
It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I'm sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah's life's work. That's not the case at all...
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 non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.
The controversy has spurred a discussion about objectivity in journalism and the mainstream media's growing pains with social media:
- Insufficient Apology, writes Steve Krakauer at Mediaite: "It certainly explains her tweet further, but it doesn’t change her classification of Fadlallah, and it’s a classification many would strongly disagree with."
- CNN Is Hypocritical, writes Brian Whitaker at The Guardian:
I'm not sure that CNN itself is entirely blameless in this affair. Like most news organisations (including the Guardian), it has been encouraging its journalists to cross over into social media and establish a more personal and informal relationship with their viewers and readers.
Indeed, Nasr's profile page on CNN (presumably soon to be deleted) hails her as "a leader in integrating social media with newsgathering and reporting".
News organisations have good reasons for moving in this direction but Nasr's recent tweet shows how easily it can go wrong.
Tweets, by their very nature, are short and written in haste – often without much forethought – but it's not just the lack of scope for nuance that can lead to embarrassment.
- We Need More Opinions in the News, Not Less, writes Michael Arrington at TechCrunch: "I think journalists should have the right to express their opinions on the topics they cover. More importantly, I think readers have a right to know what those opinions are. Frankly, I’d like to know sooner rather than later just how insane some of these people at CNN and Fox News are. To stop them from giving me that information is just another way to lie to me."
- Fear the Tweet, writes Mistermix at Balloon Juice: "I have no idea whether Nasr was any good, but it’s pretty harsh to fire someone over one tweet without a second chance. People typing a sentence or two on the fly are going to fuck up once in a while. If I worked for CNN, I’d tweet a hell of a lot less after this incident."
- CNN Did the Right Thing, writes Mike Opelka at Big Journalism: "Bravo to CNN for having the courage to stand up quickly and act. It took less than a week for this to unfold." Brent Bozell at the Media Research Center agrees: "CNN’s pattern of biased reporting extends beyond their coverage of Islam and terrorism, but we’ve recently witnessed just how blatant they are in showing their true feelings about Islamic extremists. Octavia Nasr chose this week to post her sadness about the death of the Hezbollah leader that orchestrated the murder of United States Marines in the 1983 Beirut bombings. The only thing that is sad about this situation is that CNN continues to pretend that they are a legitimate, unbiased source of news and that their employees, like this senior editor, get away with public sentiments such as this."
- He Was a Moderate, writes the Eurasia Review: "Fadlallah was a ‘moderate’ (to use the terminology of those who think that politics can be reduced to black and white). He was a man who even Britain’s Ambassador in Lebanon felt comfortable to defend. Frances Guy, the UK’s woman in Beirut, went much further than Nasr in her blog post:
People in Lebanon like to ask me which politician I admire most. … Until yesterday my preferred answer was to refer to Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, head of the Shia clergy in Lebanon and much admired leader of many Shia muslims throughout the world...The world needs more men like him … May he rest in peace.”
- A Relative Moderate? You've Got to Be Kidding, writes the Media Critique blog at Honest Reporting, an "organization dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the Media"
Many obituaries in the international press have described Fadlallah as something of a "relative moderate". According to Reuters, however, at the hospital when a nurse asked the ailing cleric what he needed, he replied: "For the Zionist entity to cease to exist."
- The Times' David Carr Tweets:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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