By: Glenn Greenwald
CNN yesterday ended the 20-year career of Octavia Nasr, its Atlanta-based Senior Middle East News Editor, because of a now-deleted tweet she wrote on Sunday upon learning of the death of one of the Shiite world’s most beloved religious figures: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah . . . . One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” That message spawned an intense fit of protest from Far Right outlets, Thought Crime enforcers, and other neocon precincts, and CNN quickly (and characteristically) capitulated to that pressure by firing her. The network — which has employed a former AIPAC official, Wolf Blitzer, as its primary news anchor for the last 15 years — justified its actions by claiming that Nasr’s “credibility” had been “compromised.” Within this episode lies several important lessons about media “objectivity” and how the scope of permissible views is enforced.
First, consider which viewpoints cause someone to be fired from The Liberal Media. Last month, Helen Thomas’ 60-year career as a journalist ended when she expressed the exact view about Jews which numerous public figures have expressed (with no consequence or even controversy) about Palestinians. Just weeks ago, The Washington Post accepted the “resignation” of Dave Weigel because of scorn he heaped on right-wing figures such as Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh. CNN’s Chief News Executive, Eason Jordan, was previously forced to resign after he provoked a right-wing fit of fury over comments he made about the numerous — and obviously disturbing — incidents where the U.S. military had injured or killed journalists in war zones. NBC fired Peter Arnett for criticizing the U.S. war plan on Iraqi television, which prompted accusations of Treason from the Right. MSNBC demoted and then fired its rising star Ashleigh Banfield after she criticized American media war coverage for adhering to the Fox model of glorifying U.S. wars; the same network fired its top-rated host, Phil Donahue, due to its fear of being perceived as anti-war; and its former reporter, Jessica Yellin, confessed that journalists were “under enormous pressure from corporate executives” to present the news in a pro-war and pro-Bush manner.
What each of these firing offenses have in common is that they angered and offended the neocon Right. Isn’t that a strange dynamic for the supposedly Liberal Media: the only viewpoint-based firings of journalists are ones where the journalist breaches neoconservative orthodoxy? Have there ever been any viewpoint-based firings of establishment journalists by The Liberal Media because of comments which offended liberals? None that I can recall. I foolishly thought that when George Bush’s own Press Secretary mocked the American media for being “too deferential” to the Bush administration, that would at least put a dent in that most fictitious American myth: The Liberal Media. But it didn’t; nothing does, not even the endless spate of journalist firings for deviating from right-wing dogma.
Beyond journalism, speech codes concerning the Middle East are painfully biased and one-sided. Chas Freeman was barred from a government position — despite a long and accomplished record of public service — due to AIPAC-led anger over comments deemed insufficiently devoted to Israel. Juan Cole was denied a tenured position at Yale after a vicious neocon campaign based on his allegedly anti-Israel remarks, and Norman Finklestein suffered the same fate, despite a unanimous committee recommendation for tenure, after an Alan-Dershowitz-led demonization campaign based on his blasphemous scholarship about Israel. Does anyone ever suffer career-impeding injuries of this type — the way Nasr and Thomas also just have — for expressing anti-Muslim or anti-Arab views? No. The speech prohibitions and thought crimes on the Middle East all run in one direction: to enforce “pro-Israel” orthodoxies. Does this long list of examples leave room for doubt about that fact?
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Then there’s the Nasr case itself. Look at how our discourse is completely distorted and dumbed-down by the same stunted, cartoonish neocon orthodoxies that have also destroyed our foreign policy. In our standard political discussions, the simplistic and false notion — obviously accepted by CNN — drives the discussion: Fadlallah is an Evil Hezbollah Terrorist!!, and Nasr probably is as well given the “respect” she expressed for him during his death. Thus: CNN got caught employing an Israel-hating Terrorist-lover, and once she revealed herself, she had to be fired immediately!!!! That really is the primitive level of agitprop churned out by neocon polemicists and then dutifully ingested and embraced by CNN.
The reality, though, is completely different. Fadlallah was a revered figure to a large chunk of the world, and was quite mainstream even in parts of the West. As the AP put it today, Fadlallah was “one of Shiite Islam’s highest and most revered religious authorities with a following that stretched beyond Lebanon’s borders to Iraq, the Gulf and as far away as central Asia.” Ironically, he was the religious guide for Iraq’s Dawa Party: the party of our close ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who took the very unusual step of leaving Iraq to attend Fadlallah’s funeral. As ThinkProgress’ Matt Duss put it:
So here’s the neocon logic: When a reporter acknowledges the passing of a revered, if controversial figure in a way that doesn’t sufficiently convey what a completely evil terrorist neocons think that figure was — that’s unacceptable. But when the United States spends nearly a trillion dollars, loses over 4,000 of its own troops and over 100,000 Iraqis to establish a new government largely dominated by that same “terrorist’s” avowed acolytes — that’s victory.
Writing in Foreign Policy — not exactly a radical, Terrorist-loving outlet — David Kenner described how even moderate, U.S.-friendly officials such as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised Fadlallah as “a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity,” and Kenner documents that even Fadlallah’s alleged ties to Hezbollah are dubious at best.
Most striking, the British Ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, heaped praise on Fadlallah far more gushing than anything Nasr said. In a piece she entitled “The Passing of Decent Men,” Ambassador Guy wrote that he was one of the people whom she enjoyed meeting most and with whom she was most impressed; that he was “a true man of religion, leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith”; that “Lebanon is a lesser place the day after his absence”; and that “the world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths.”
And Nasr herself wrote a moving explanation after the controversy over her tweet erupted, explaining that the respect she expressed for Fadlallah had nothing to do with some of his uglier views about the justifiability of civilian attacks on Israel or Holocaust disparagement, but was rather driven by his important and virtuous call for greater rights and respect for Muslim women, his desire for greater religious tolerance in Muslim nations, and the fact that he “spread what many considered a more moderate voice of Shia Islam than what was coming out of Iran.” She recounted the respect he showed her when she interviewed him 20 years ago. And she explained that “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.” By all accounts, Fadlallah became particularly radicalized in his hostility toward the U.S. when the Reagan administration — working in concert with Saudi Arabia — attempted to assassinate him with a car bomb in Beirut, missed, and slaughtered 80 innocent civilians instead.
In other words, like many people involved in protracted and religiously-motivated violent conflicts, Fadlallah was a profoundly complex figure, with some legitimate grievances, some entrenched hatreds and ugly viewpoints, and a substantial capacity for good. Nasr was expressing a very mild and restrained form of sadness and respect for someone who had just died: sentiments shared in much stronger form by hundreds of millions of people in the Muslim and even Western world. The sentiment she expressed, while infuriating neocons, is widespread and completely unnotable for large parts of the world.
What makes Nasr’s summary firing even more astonishing is that Nasr herself was an unremarkable journalist who rarely if ever provoked controversy, had no history of anti-Israel or pro-Terrorist sentiments, and blended perfectly into the American corporate media woodwork. Indeed, Middle East expert and neocon critic Nir Rosen ironically noted yesterday that — as almost happened to Michael Steele — “Octavia Nasr got fired for the one smart thing she ever said.” And behold the July 4 message sent on Twitter by this subversive, America-hating, Terrorist-loving menace from whom CNN had to protect us all:
This was a banal and very cautious establishment journalist who survived and advanced at Time Warner, Inc. for 20 years by adhering to all the prevailing codes.
But no matter: as we’ve seen repeatedly, in American media and political culture, Middle East orthodoxies are the most sacred and inviolable. Thus, her 2o-year loyal service is brushed to the side because of a 140-character blip of blasphemy. As the Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah put it: she “wasn’t particularly groundbreaking. That’s the point. EVEN someone usually so cautious cannot survive.” He added: “More than ever, [CNN, NPR, The New York Times] are purveyors of official, accepted opinion. Their job is to police what/who we can hear.” That’s what Nicholas Kristof meant when, writing today from Jerusalem, he observed that Israel “tolerates a far greater range of opinions than America”: it’s even more acceptable to utter blasphemy about Israel in Israel than it is in the U.S., as Octavia Nasr was but the latest to discover.
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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 Wolf 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.