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After 20 years with CNN, the network fired Octavia Nasr for tweeting that she had “a lot of respect” for a dead Hezbollah leader. Here she explains what she meant by the remark, and regrets what she said in the tweet, but that was too late. She still lost her job. And that is a damn shame.
I say that not because I agree with Octavia Nasr (who, by the way, is a Lebanese Christian, not a Muslim) on the dead terrorist leader. I don’t, not by a long shot. I find her explanation understandable, if unpersuasive. I don’t think, though, that 20 years of presumably good journalism should be thrown out because of an ill-advised 140-character message she tweeted. This strikes me as horribly unjust, and a bad sign for journalism. If you are a journalist who tweets, you should stop it right now. One reason I don’t tweet is because I think it’s impossible to say anything interesting in 140 characters or less. I would have liked to have read an Octavia Nasr piece explaining (as she later did) whence her “respect” for a figure who looks vile in every respect to me. Reading the explanation she added later, I think it’s interesting to see that Fadlallah was, in his way, a moderating force for women inside Shia Islam. I still recoil from Nasr’s expression of “respect,” but I don’t believe it’s remotely as simplistic as her tweet indicated, nor do I believe it’s outside the realm of acceptable opinion. I’ve seen her from time to time on CNN over the years, especially when traveling abroad on CNN International, and I can’t recall her ever saying anything that didn’t strike me as perfectly anodyne analysis. Twenty years of presumably fine work, thrown away, just like that.
Eight years ago — which is to say, less than a year after 9/11 — I engaged in a blog discussion with my then-boss, National Review editor Rich Lowry, over what the US response should be if Muslim terrorists nuked an American city — that is, what should our government be prepared to do. I posted this item suggesting that it would “feel good” to retaliate by nuking Mecca, but saying that it would be counterproductive, and boy, isn’t it “insane” that we’re even having this discussion. It may have been insane to talk about mutually assured destruction, but it wasn’t foolish. Mutually Assured Destruction was the basis for our nuclear doctrine during the Cold War; we were discussing, in our haphazard way, whether or not it would be suitable for the war on Islamic terrorism. I noted in the blog item that an American polity traumatized by seeing one of its cities go up in an Islamist-caused fireball would draw emotional satisfaction from seeing Mecca obliterated, doing so would be unwise. What was foolish was speculating this way in public; I should have had the sense to realize that many people would only see the words “nuke Mecca,” and freak out. For years, Islamist nutters dogged me by denouncing me to my editors as the guy who wanted to nuke Mecca. I patiently explained to my bosses that as unwise as I was even to discuss it in public (or at all, frankly; the fear and loathing that was the legacy of 9/11 took a long time to fade with me, and I learned how distorting it was to my own judgment), I had not advocated nuking Mecca, nor would I.The record was clear to see, and it was undeniable that the people who kept distorting my ill-considered and regrettable words on a blog were trying to exploit that to ruin my career because they were unhappy with other things I wrote about radical Islam. I’m lucky I answered to editors who were fair-minded about this. I wonder, though, if I had been working for other editors/publishers who were more easily intimidated, or if a more influential lobbying group than local Muslim hotheads had gotten after me, if my career would have survived.
If Octavia Nasr had done something that compromised the integrity of her journalism (e.g., Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair), that would be something totally different. What she did was to express a controversial opinion in a medium that required her to dumb it down. She was, in my view, wrong in her judgment, and certainly foolish to have tweeted something like that. But so what? If CNN has spent 20 years trusting the editorial judgment of Octavia Nasr on Middle East coverage, why should they throw her overboard over something this relatively petty? Does she have a record of slanting coverage and commentary in a pro-Hezbollah way? If so, that’s an issue — and I suspect if Helen Thomas had not spent the last 20 years turning herself into a crazy bag lady and diminishing her professional reputation, people would have been quicker to defend her after her idiotic remark about Israel. But if Nasr’s work has been fair and competent for two decades, what’s the big deal — especially because she makes it clear that she’s not a Hezbollah supporter (if she were, it would be strange for a Lebanese Christian)?
Before you rush to the comboxes, understand that I’m NOT defending Nasr’s opinion. I think I’m on safe ground here pointing out that I’m one of the last people you’ll read defending radical Islamic clerics. Plus, though I’m a Christian, I am personally a Zionist, and believe strongly in Israel’s right to exist. No, I’m defending her right to say things like that — especially if, in the explanation of her remarks, they are much less offensive — without getting fired. We’ve simply got to be more tolerant of journalists, I think. I wouldn’t trade one Christopher Hitchens, who makes no effort to hide his prejudices, but who is a brilliant journalist, for a thousand personality-free journalists who make every effort to suppress expression of their own opinions or biases, for fear of destroying their careers. I can think of much-loathed people whose passing might prompt me to generate a tweet of respect for some aspect of their career or lives. If the vile rapist Roman Polanski died tomorrow, and I tweeted that I “respect” him (this, based on the fact that he directed one of the greatest movies ever made, “Chinatown”), would that mean the end of my career? Can we not be grown-ups about this?
You want a media in which nobody says anything interesting, insightful or provocative for fear of being fired over a single unguarded, poorly thought out, or clumsily phrased public remark? Keep this up. Again, we’ve got to develop more tolerance for this sort of thing — and it’s not really tolerance if you already agree.