Sunday, July 11, 2010

You Can't Say That (and Be) on Television

Stop me if you've heard this one before: CNN just fired someone for voicing an opinion online.

Maybe you know the details of this by now, maybe you don't, but a few days ago the network bafflingly sacked its long-time, just-about-universally respected senior Middle Eastern affairs editor, Octavia Nasr. The reason? She posted a message on Twitter lamenting the death of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, whom Nasr called "One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." If the gut-punch brevity of a statement that brash and undeniably controversial made you do a bit of a double take, believe me, it had the same effect on Nasr; it took her all of 24 hours to post a lengthy clarification on CNN's news blog, explaining that what she respected about Fadlallah was his somewhat progressive take on the treatment of Muslim women (i.e., that they don't necessarily deserve to live under the constant threat of being beaten to death with rocks). Nasr apologized for making the mistake of trying to express a complex viewpoint within the confines of Twitter's 140 character format, but it was an ultimately futile gesture -- at least when it came to saving her job: Wednesday afternoon, CNN International Desk guru Parisa Khosravi released an internal memo stating that Nasr's "credibility... (had) been compromised" by the comment. The final verdict: "We have decided that (Nasr) will be leaving the company."

How thoughtful of the them.

There are so many ways in which this entirely unnecessary drama stinks to high heaven that it's tough to figure out where to begin. Believe it or not, while I myself was fired by CNN for speaking my mind in an online forum, I've never held a grudge against the network insofar as wanting to see it somehow "pay" for getting rid of me. I've always said that CNN has every right to hire and fire whomever it wants; likewise I try to make it clear at all times that any issue I take with the network comes from the desire to see it honor its commitment to being the best source for news on television. It pisses me off to no end to watch CNN embarrass itself -- to turn its promise of consistent quality into nothing more than a hollow PR-campaign -- and that's probably why the dismissal of Octavia Nasr crawls its way so far under my skin.

First of all, the fact that Nasr's an invaluable asset to CNN's Middle East coverage, one who's been with the company for 20 years -- the length of my entire career -- should put her well above the caprices of one or two managers who wet their pants at the first sign of potential controversy. She's great at what she does; her insight, displayed both on-air and behind the scenes, has always made her a marquee player at a place which supposedly prides itself on its smarts. What's more, it's the very fact that Octavia Nasr isn't some provincial dimwit who sees issues only in terms of black and white -- that she could both embrace someone like Fadlallah for many of his beliefs while roundly criticizing him for others -- which made her such a powerful resource to CNN. It almost goes without saying that, as an outfit which traffics in the global exchange of ideas, CNN should want its people to come to the table with opinions of every stripe; it's just fucking ridiculous to assume that someone of Arab heritage, born and raised in Beirut, wouldn't be at least somewhat sympathetic to the cause that Hezbollah ostensibly fights for. CNN's coverage area is worldwide, which means that its newsroom reflects that. The notion of trying to homogenize the beliefs of thousands of employees from everywhere on the map is asinine -- it's a fool's errand.

But it's probably not really about having an opinion anyway -- it's about expressing that opinion.

I've touched on this before, but CNN let it be known when it released its draconian policy on employee blogging and social networking back in 2008 that the network is content to pull a fast one on its audience: It wants to convince viewers that if they can't see a bias then there is no bias. The idea was never to eliminate the fiercely held opinions of its various staff-members -- the opinions, by the way, that make them good journalists; the idea was simply to make sure no one could ever see or hear what those opinions were. The ironic thing is that this type of dogshit thinking flies in the face of what the network is now trying to do through its embrace of social networking (the state-sanctioned kind only, of course). CNN is pretty much making its anchors, correspondents and editors put themselves out there on Twitter, but it still doesn't understand that no one will follow those people if they don't ever have anything interesting to say. And what's interesting? Well, it damn sure isn't "Just did an interview with the prime minister of Denmark!" or "Remember, my show starts at 10am ET"; it's hinting at a little analytical muscle, making an occasional bold statement backed up by years of experience and a metric ton of resources, and letting your real views be known. I've said this until I'm blue in the face but apparently it bears repeating one more time: The transparent nature of the new media revolution means that people can sniff out a lie a mile away; if you're hiding something or BSing them outright, they'll know it.

The very nature of journalism is changing and the old guard still doesn't seem to get it, and given how smart a substantial portion of that guard is I'm at a loss to understand why. There's nothing wrong with a journalist occasionally being human and letting his or her opinions be known to the public -- in fact, I'd rather have at least some idea where a reporter, anchor, editor, etc. stands on certain issues these days so that I have all the facts and can decide whether I should take that into account when reading or watching his or her work. I don't believe that any journalist who holds certain viewpoints will automatically allow them to taint the various stories he or she covers; I don't think that just because the true feelings of any newsperson somehow slip out into the realm of the public, that man or woman is now spoiled and has "lost credibility." That's just nonsense. Once again, we know these people have opinions -- they have to, for God's sake, they're human beings -- and to pretend that they don't is intellectually dishonest on our part.

There's an easy argument to be made that CNN is myopic in its firing of Octavia Nasr for what really amounts to a trifling offense, hypocritical in its hiring of, say, Erick Erickson -- who's practically the fucking Rosetta Stone of inflammatory online crap -- while supposedly demanding that all CNN employees keep their views to themselves, and irresponsible for sending mixed signals by doing both at the same time. But this goes a lot deeper than just, "Well, you said something on Twitter that made us tinkle." It's about saying something at all. Octavia Nasr's strength was that she had -- and has -- an opinion.

CNN should've realized that that opinion -- whatever it may have been -- was their strength as well.


countryjoe said...

With Wolf Blitzer what more do the need anyway?

CNN quit being relevant when Ted Turner sold it to Time Warner. It's just corporate controlled opinion now. The only way to get any truthful information now is the internet and if the powers that be get their way (and they usually do) that too will be ending in the not to distant future - Net neutrality.

Anonymous said...

Someone needs to start a news network with all the people CNN dumped.

"You're watching F-CNN: the most human name in news."

C said...

I don't know all of the ins and outs of "big league" news like you do, but from an outsiders standpoint I'm getting annoyed at all reporting, and "journalism". Back when I was in high school (late 80s) we were taught to report the facts and leave the "I" out of the story. Now, whenever I read a story, or watch a report on TV the "I" part just scream out of every single story. I want the facts, but I also want to make up my own mind! A blog is the perfect place for an opinion, and when you allow for commentary it works. ( Yes, even when trolls immediately cut everything in half.) The days of a trusted newscaster are falling by the wayside, and I don't really know when or whom to trust, when the agenda is ratings and political clout.

Anonymous said...

What's being missed is that it seems probable that CNN is simply using this as an excuse to dismiss someone they already wanted to get rid of. A common tactic. They would forgive and forget for someone they didn't already want to let go.

TheReaperD said...

It's not about being offensive, it's about who you offend. If a reporter offends democrats or intellectuals who will just whine, who cares? It may even up their ratings. Offending Muslims? That's a US sponsored full-contact sport at this point. Offending the Jewish community or commercial owners/sponsors? That's another matter entirely. That will cost the network money! I can envision it now. Angry manager call to HR: "Fire this reporter right now! Reason? I don't give a fuck about the reason! Make something up! I want them gone by the end of the day!"

Chez, even you said when you were fired from CNN that it wasn't about the fact that you were blogging but, what you were blogging about.


I can also see the scenario offered by anon@13:01. Makes for a good way of getting out of paying vacation time or severance pay.

Ethnic Redneck said...

I always felt like the modern news started becoming pointless when they closed the foreign-offices. How can you get a legitimate view of what's transpiring on the ground if you don't have someone who has contacts with everyone from the cops, to the local politicians, to the shop owners? The perspective of someone with 20 years of experience living, breathing, and working around the locals may not have been unbiased, but it sure made the reporting a hell of a lot better.

becky said...

it's more likely that CAMERA and/or AIPAC jumped on this. money money money. that's what CNN and other "news" organizations care about.

Mas Triste said...

I'd rather have at least some idea where a reporter, anchor, editor, etc. stands on certain issues these days so that I have all the facts and can decide whether I should take that into account when reading or watching his or her work.

I could not agree more.

I really have a hard time believing that Ms. Nasr would somehow skew her reporting on Hezbollah based on this tweet. I believe that when a journalist’s bullshit meter is sounding off, they will dig deeper regardless of the target's political affiliation. If they did, they would not be employed long.

This move by CNN was for appearances sake.

I recall an ethics discussion in a journalism 101 class many years ago. We were told that journalists must suppress their own worldview when doing their job.
At the time, I was thinking; "that would require them to be super humans". I still believe that today. In fact, we need journalists today more than ever before to keep the politico's in check.

Anonymous said...

That's all the time we have...

So no actual thoughtful, honest good questions.

Why no more time? We have to primp and fluff Wolf and Anderson Cooper holding that stupid fucking bird to look like we give a shit about the environment.

Thanks for the post. When I first heard about it, I was taken aback. Having said that, there is context to nearly everything. Glad you cleared it up.

The old guard media is killing itself.

They bitch about Rolling Stone scooping their lazy asses and they dislike honest opinion in cases like these.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm old. I agree with C, I want the facts of the story, without bias, and I can't find that anywhere anymore.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me who thinks this could have something to do with Klein being a Jew? Hezbollah is against the Jews. He's making it personal.

Can Jackie Schechner tell us what he did to her? She may find that there are others who suffered the same fate or have equally horrifying tales to tell.

Klein will also go after anyone who gets between him and Anderson Cooper.

bill bush said...

CNN? Are they still on my satellite? I got so damn sick of their rerunning tape of Katrina/New Orleans (obviously a cost saving move) that I broke my viewing habit, which I already knew was killing me brainwise. I am so relieved not to have to watch Wolf the master of ceremonies, and Anderson is keeping nobody honest. The network is superficial and irrelevant.

Octavia Nasr was great. She was insightful and nuanced. "Murka showed her!"

Bill Orivs White said...

I'm not going to defend the far left news place you worked at, Chez, but let's face it, you bad-mouthed the folks that paid you. I would do the same if I had workers bad-mouthing me behind my back whether it's here on the computer or in town. I don't tolerate my apprentices running around telling folk that I don't know how to plumb. Now you say that someone like Erick is on the TV and it wasn't fair to let his Arab girl go. Well, Erick is a paid commenator and he's paid to commentate. This wasn't in the Arab girl's job description. She was on the TV to tell the people what was going on in that part of the world. So, did she have any business saying how much she loved a terrorist? No. That's just dangerous, Chez. This might be the only thing that that place did right.
Now, if they would just hire more people like Erick, I might just watch again.
"Bill, you're crazy to write this-this just ain't fair," you're thinking.
Well, a TV news place that's here on American soil has a responsibility to tell the truth and protect us from evil. When Erick writes that that judge on the Sup Court is, "a goat-f+cking child molester," he's telling us the truth and protecting us from such a sick man. Are you following my logic, Chez? I read that policy thing you re-printed. That makes a lot of sense, Chez. It's not yer job to question it if you work for someone who makes you agree to such a common sense piece of fine literature. I might just write a policy manual like that for my employees.
God Bless and don't ask so many questions, you nutty secular progressive.

Tabi said...

Really, Chez. Listen to B.O.V.

Shut up and follow the herd.

*tee-hees* ;)

Peter said...

I'm in Europe, where cable news networks from all over the world are common & actively compete on digital cable.

France24, RT from Moscow, Al Jazeera, the BBC with their UK channels: we get a balanced view of the world.

The average US TV or cable viewer does not get that balanced view.

We gave up entirely on watching CNN (the version from London): it's bland, seems to be stuck in "repeat mode" and fails to cover most of the issues we Europeans care about.

As for the ethics behind sacking people with an opinion of their own:
can someone rememeber how CNN covered the invasion of Irak?
We were horrified: it felt like pure propaganda.

Unrelated: we all wonder whether CNN US still shows those nicely colored "homeland security threat level" labels - we fail to get them on the CNN London feed.

Peter in Belgium.