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.