It takes 20 years to build a job, 140 characters to end it. On Tuesday, CNN senior editor for Middle Eastern Affairs Octavia Nasr posted this comment on Twitter: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon.” By yesterday, with CNN under fire for Nasr’s having expressed respect for a leader who had praised terror attacks, Nasr had lost her job.
As a practical matter, the reason for Nasr’s ouster would seem obvious: her tweet created a huge pain for CNN, and the network presumably wanted to make the problem go away. Nasr should have known this and posting the tweet was a dumb move.
But to leave it at that is a cop out, because there are two very different reasons that CNN might have fired her, with very different implications for journalistic standards:
1. The mere fact of her stating an opinion—any opinion—on the subject area of her coverage was a firing offense. CNN employees may hold such opinions, but must keep them secret. Or,
2. The specific opinion she offered was beyond the pale, and she was fired for believing it and sharing it.
If CNN removed Nasr for reason #2 (it isn’t specifying*), then we should have an open discussion about it—about, when taken together with Helen Thomas’ downfall for saying that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” what the boundaries for acceptable opinion about the Middle East are. What are the beliefs you are, professionally, forbidden to express? If an organization wants to set parameters for acceptable expression, that’s its prerogative, but if that organization is in the information business, it has a responsibility to be transparent about it. If you run a news outlet, and expressing respect for a Hezbollah leader is a firing offense at your shop, fine. If you decide it’s OK for a capitalist to cover business but not a socialist, go ahead. But put that out in the marketplace of ideas where you make your living.
[*I asked CNN for comment, but they're not saying much to clarify their reasoning. Their statement: "It was an error of judgment for Octavia Nasr to write such a simplistic tweet about the death of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. In a statement posted at CNN.com Octavia has clarified what she meant. CNN regrets any offense her Twitter message caused. It did not meet CNN's editorial standards. This is a serious matter and will be dealt with accordingly."]
If the explanation is #1, however—that you simply must not express any opinion as a journalist regarding anything you cover—it’s an example of how the journalistic rule of pretend neutrality, never a good idea to begin with, is not only a worse idea in the age of instant communication, but is increasingly untenable.
I’ve never had strong opinions about the Middle East. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, because it makes me feel like a moron. I’m a news junkie generally. I’m Jewish, and have extended family in Israel. And I’m plenty opinionated about a lot of political and social subjects. But the Israeli-Palestinian crisis? I shrug. It’s too tough. I have no idea when the best solution is. Good luck to them!
My lack of opinion and interest in this very important issue, which I’m not proud of, is why I am the last journalist who should ever be writing about the subject. Instead, I write about issues I care about passionately, and thus am motivated to learn about. But in the crazy construct of “objectivity”—in which the ideal reporter hides his/her opinions about his subject matter, or preferably has none at all—I would apparently be perfect for the job.
This, of course, is ridiculous. Intelligent people have perspectives and opinions on the subjects that make up their lives’ work. And intelligent readers and viewers know that. Yet mainstream journalism still depends on perpetuating the fiction that they don’t. It is, as I’ve said, the only area in which journalists argue that hiding information from our audience benefits our audience.
The argument is that having reporters hide their leanings makes them more trustworthy. It doesn’t. It makes them less so. Hiding things makes you appear as if, well, you have something to hide. Far from building confidence in the fairness of any reporter, it just feeds the suspicious cottage industry of parsing coverage to determine news organizations’ and journalists’ secret biases.
What builds trust? Trustworthiness. Actual fair reporting. You don’t prove you’re an honest broker by squirreling away secrets. You do so by admitting that you’re (one would hope) an intelligent person with an active mind who has come to reasoned beliefs—but who, regardless, proves through your work that you are devoted to the truth rather than to the interests of your side.
In practical terms, CNN is probably right when it says that Nasr’s credibility in her job “has been compromised” by her tweet. But that’s largely because CNN, and other MSM news organizations, cling to the implausible fiction that their journalists are some sort of dispassionate alien scientists. Especially in an area like Middle East coverage—in which every report is parsed anyway by an intensely interested and often outraged audience—dropping that pretense would remove one reason for suspicion and let the media’s critics focus on the fairness of the actual work.
Big news organizations still resist this, but cases like this one—or Dave Weigel’s ouster at the Washington Post—make me believe that they’re going to have to adjust to the era of openness whether they like it or not. Between Twitter, e-mail and YouTube, there will only be more of these scandals. And meanwhile MSM outlets are losing audience, and trust, to media like blogs in which journalists don’t blow credibility by sharing their thoughts openly, but earn it—by showing that they’re smart enough to have formed conclusions, and that they trust their audience to be smart enough to handle it.
Either the MSM will have to change, or more and more of its journalists will have careers that end in 140 characters or less. And I’m not sure their employers’ futures will be that much lengthier.