Octavia Nasr at CNN:
My tweet was short: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon”
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.
Here’s what I should have conveyed more fully:
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.
I met Fadlallah in 1990. He was willing to take the risk of meeting with a young Christian journalist from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. Fadlallah was at the height of his power. As I was ushered in, I was told that he would not look at me in the eye and to make it quick as there was a long line of dignitaries waiting.
The interview went 45 minutes, during which I asked him about Hezbollah’s agenda for an Islamic state in Lebanon. He bluntly told me that was his group’s dream but there would be room for other religions. He also joked at the end of the interview that the solution for Lebanon’s civil war was to send “all political leaders without exception on a ship away from Lebanon with no option to return.”
He challenged me to run the entire interview on LBC without editing. We did.
This does not mean I respected him for what else he did or said. Far from it.
It is no secret that Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah hated with a vengeance the United States government and Israel. He regularly praised the terror attacks that killed Israeli citizens. And as recently as 2008, he said the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust were wildly inflated.
But it was his commitment to Hezbollah’s original mission – resisting Israel’s occupation of Lebanon – that made him popular and respected among many Lebanese, not just people of his own sect.
Daniel Halper at The Weekly Standard:
How did CNN senior editor of Middle East affairs Octavia Nasr celebrate July 4? By mourning the passing of Hezbollah’s Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Here’s what the CNN editor posted on her Twitter account:
Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot..#Lebanon
Fadlallah “famously justified suicide bombings,” as the New York Times recalls in its obituary for him:
In a 2002 interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph, he was quoted as saying of the Palestinians: “They have had their land stolen, their families killed, their homes destroyed, and the Israelis are using weapons, such as the F16 aircraft, which are meant only for major wars. There is no other way for the Palestinians to push back those mountains, apart from martyrdom operations.”
The Times also reports in its obit that Fadlallah is believed to be responsible for the killing of 241 U.S. Marines during the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings
Michael Totten at Commentary:
I know enough about Fadlallah, who died at the age of 74 in a Beirut hospital over the weekend, that I can interpret her Twitter post charitably. While once known as the “spiritual leader” of Hezbollah, Fadlallah later moved above and beyond the Party of God and even criticized it once in a while. He supported the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but he also criticized Khomeini’s regime of Velayat-e faqih — rule by Islamic jurists — and declared it an inappropriate political system for Lebanon. He supported women’s rights, dismissed their unequal treatment as “backward,” and issued a fatwa condemning “honor” killings.
Most Americans don’t know this about Fadlallah, or have even heard of him. Octavia Nasr surely does, though. It’s common knowledge in Lebanon. She lives in Atlanta, but she was born in Beirut, and covers the Middle East for a living. More likely than not, some or all of the above is what she had in mind when she posted her comment on Twitter.
Still, she’s talking about a man who issued theological justifications for suicide bombings. He threw his support behind hostage-taking in Lebanon during the 1980s and the truck bombings in Beirut that killed more American servicemen than any single attack since World War II. Nasr didn’t mention any of that. It doesn’t even look like she factored it in.
Twitter has a strict limit of 140 characters per “tweet.” It’s hardly the place for a nuanced exposé of a complicated man. There simply isn’t room to write more than one or two sentences at a time. Even so, I suspect the average American consumer of news would find it alarming that a senior editor of Mideast Affairs respects and mourns the loss of a man who supported the kidnapping, murder, and truck bombings of hundreds of her adopted countrymen — and that she said so on the Fourth of July — even if she mourns and respects him for entirely different reasons and does so despite, not because of, his positions on “resistance” and terrorism.
Steve Krakauer at Mediaite:
In the latest case of new media (or oversharing) gone wrong, CNN’s Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs Octavia Nasr is leaving the company following the controversy caused by her tweet in praise of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah
Mediaite has the internal memo, which says “we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised.”
Nasr tweeted this weekend: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”
After a blog post expanding on her position, CNN promised the issue was “serious” and would “be dealt with accordingly.” That’s apparently her exit from CNN. Here’s an internal memo obtained by Mediaite:
From Parisa Khosravi – SVP CNN International Newsgathering
I had a conversation with Octavia this morning and I want to share with you that we have decided that she will be leaving the company. As you know, her tweet over the weekend created a wide reaction. As she has stated in her blog on CNN.com, she fully accepts that she should not have made such a simplistic comment without any context whatsoever. However, at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.
As a colleague and friend we’re going to miss seeing Octavia everyday. She has been an extremely dedicated and committed part of our team. We thank Octavia for all of her hard work and we certainly wish her all the best.
Nasr has been with CNN for 20 years.
Frank Ross at Big Journalism:
As if further proof were needed that a sizable segment of the Fourth Estate is now effectively the Fifth Column, this one is right up there. Apparently it’s no longer enough that reporters and correspondents pretend to be neutral, even about the good guys — now, they’re not only not neutral, they publicly express their admiration for sheer, malevolent evil — a man who, according to the obits, was “known for his staunch anti-American stance.”
Good Lord, is this what American journalism has come to?
After having outed herself as a Hezbollah sympathizer, which is certainly the rational conclusion of Nasr’s Twitter message and subsequent explanation, doesn’t CNN owe its viewers and readers a complete accounting of their coverage in the Middle East and a complete explanation of Nasr’s role in it?
Furthermore, the very fact that she offered that message in a public forum speaks to Nasr’s odd conception of how Hezbollah should be presented. It’s an Iranian proxy terrorist army, run and funded by the mullahs in Tehran. Nasr seems to believe that the consensus opinion of CNN’s audience is that they are a heroic band of freedom fighters with an unfortunate bent towards misogyny. If that was her worldview, shouldn’t CNN have known about that either before or after putting her in charge of the news reporting from the region? It’s certainly good that we’re finding out about it now.
I suspect that Mary Katharine Ham was correct in her assertion during my show today that a lot of bloggers are going to start reviewing their notes about CNN coverage of Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and the entire region in the context which Nasr’s messages reveal.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:
Doing a little sleuthing it seems like it may be slightly overstating things to say he was a member or leader of Hezbollah, more like a spiritual mentor or a cleric closely associated with the movement. In any case, given CNN’s record of running for the hills over a lot less, I can’t say I’m completely surprised at their decision. And I’m a little surprised she’d tweet that myself. And in the internal memo CNN circulated explaining her termination, a CNN VP wrote, “she fully accepts that she should not have made such a simplistic comment without any context whatsoever.”
But a twenty year run down the tubes over 140 characters?
That just doesn’t seem right to me.
With the Nasr firing, here we find yet again exposed the central lie of American establishment journalism: that opinion-free “objectivity” is possible, required, and the governing rule. The exact opposite is true: very strong opinions are not only permitted but required. They just have to be the right opinions: the official, approved ones. Just look at the things that are allowed. The Washington Post lavished editorial praise on the brutal, right-wing tyrant Augusto Pinochet, and that caused no controversy. AP’s Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier got caught sending secret, supportive emails to Karl Rove, and nothing happened. Benjamin Netanyahu formally celebrates the Terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel that killed 91 civilians and nobody is stigmatized for supporting him. Erick Erickson sent around the most rancid and arguably racist tweets, only to thereafter be hired as a CNN contributor. And as Jonathan Schwarz wrote of the Nasr firing:
William Barr is on the board of directors of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. Barr was a senior adviser in the Reagan administration, which attempted to assassinate Fadlallah, missing him and killing more than eighty bystanders.
Having someone who was part of the slaughter of 80 civilians in Lebanon on your Board is fine. And having a former AIPAC official with an obvious bias toward Israel (just watch Blitzer in this 5-minute clip if you have doubts about that) is perfectly consistent with a news network’s “credibility.” But expressing sadness over the death of an Islamic cleric beloved by much of the Muslim world is not. Whatever is driving that, it has nothing to do with “objectivity.”
All of this would be so much more tolerable if CNN would simply admit that it permits its journalists to hold and express some controversial opinions (ones in accord with official U.S. policy and orthodox viewpoints) but prohibits others (ones which the neocon Right dislikes). Instead, we are subjected to this patently false pretense of opinion-free objectivity.
The reality is that “pro-Israel” is not considered a viewpoint at all; it’s considered “objective.” That’s why there’s no expression of it too extreme to result in the sort of punishment which Nasr just suffered (preceded by so many others before her). Conversely, while Hezbollah is seen by much of the world as an important defense against Israeli aggression in Lebanon, the U.S. Government has declared it a Terrorist organization, and therefore “independent” U.S. media outlets such as CNN dutifully follow along by firing anyone who expresses any positive feelings about anyone who, in turn, has any connection to that group. That’s how tenuous and distant the thought crime can be and still end someone’s career. It’s true that much of the world sees some of Hezbollah’s actions as Terrorism; much of the world sees Israel’s that way as well. CNN requires the former view while prohibiting the latter. As usual, our brave journalistic outlets not only acquiesce to these suffocating and extremely subjective restrictions on what our political discourse allows; they lead the way in enforcing them.
UPDATE: Tom Friedman in NYT