Thursday, July 08, 2010

CNN censors its own

Over the years, the focus of my criticism of states that deny freedom of expression to their citizens or prevent journalists from doing their work has, given my position, been China, or that country’s impact on such freedoms abroad. However, this does not mean that when other states — especially those that are ideologically aligned with my views — transgress on freedom of the press, I will choose to remain silent.

As it turns out, the US, this great defender of freedom and democracy, has its own problems when it comes to freedom of expression, especially when the topic is the Middle East. Case in point: CNN this week fired Octavia Nasr, a 20-year CNN veteran based in Atlanta, Georgia, after she used Twitter to express, in all of 140 words, her admiration for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who passed away in Lebanon on Sunday.

Part of Nasr’s message read as follows: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

Hezbollah, as we all know, is listed as a terrorist organization by the US and other Western governments. However, although Fadlallah was an early supporter of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and was a spiritual leader and mentor to Hezbollah when it was formed following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he later distanced himself from the organization’s ties with Iran and never supported the wave of kidnappings it launched in the 1980s. In other words, he was, at most, a moderate voice within Hezbollah, whose designation as a terrorist group is, in my view as a former intelligence officer who worked on that file for more than a year, questionable and self-defeating.

Fadlallah, like many Lebanese, resisted the invasion of his country by Israeli forces and its shelling by US Navy vessels. And while it was Hezbollah that first brought car bombings into the headlines, those means (and others) were part of a war of resistance, not terrorism, as Israel would want us to believe. Calling him a “giant,” as Nasr did, especially after he distanced himself from the radical arm of Hezbollah, was more support for a cleric who became increasingly moderate than for “terrorism.”

CNN had no right to fire Nasr for her comments, especially as she did not make them on CNN, but rather in a personal Tweet. I’m pretty sure, too, that had another CNN journalist expressed similar admiration for, say, Ariel Sharon, who over his life was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, and whose views were equally “radical” — if not more — than Fadlallah’s, that reporter would never have been fired.

Shame on CNN for once again highlighting the fact that it is not truly an independent media organization, especially when the Middle East is concerned.


mike said...

But is it really a freedom of expression case and not simply a don't-publicly-embarrass-your-employer-case?

Of course I am not privy to the contractual terms of Nasr's employment at CNN, and presumably, neither are you. If CNN are guilty of breaching that contract in the manner in which they terminated her employment, then they deserve all the brickbats they get. But if they are not so guilty then your post essentially stands or falls on whether somebody's notion of "social justice" (e.g. yours) should be imposed upon an employer to prevent them firing employees.

And that amounts to little more than a cheap kick at the conceptual integrity of private property.

MikeinTaipei said...

Hi Michael:

Thanks for writing; some good points.

However, I must emphasize that Nasr was making the comments not as a CNN employee, but rather as a private citizen. Unless one works for the public sector (and even then, within reason), I don't think it would be fair for an organization to bar its employees from speaking their mind on various subjects, however sensitive they are. In other words, I'd be very surprised to learn that Nasr was actually in breach of contract (in fact, it looks like she and management at CNN had more of a talk and that she "agreed" to leave the company).

While I don't have the CNN contract as a reference, I have mine (also a large media organization), and I am confident that I would not get fired if, on this site, I wrote articles flattering Hu Jintao or, for a better analogy, calling Mao Zedong "great."

Ultimately, I think this boils down to the double standards we have in the West when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. You just can't criticize Israel (or not disparage its enemies) and not suffer the professional consequences. Academics have lost their jobs at US universities for speaking up against Zionism. Heck, I nearly lost mine in the Canadian government for doing the same thing (admittedly, as a government employee I had to respect the policy line).

mike said...

I suppose that CNN was perfectly entitled to fire her because I don't see that distinction of on-company-time vs off-company-time as having any pertinent ethical implications.

If you stipulate to the conceptual integrity of the principle that property is private, then you can of course have a "dislike" of CNN's decision to fire Nasr as well as all the Marconi-ing of that dislike you can muster, but what you don't get to have is the power to force CNN to overturn that decision. If you reach for that power anyway, then you no longer have a coherently integrated concept of private property, and at that point the chief predicate for your own individual freedom has effectively been surrendered.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? None of my business, but it is absolutely horrible.

MikeinTaipei said...

I never pretended to be in a position where I could ask CNN to overturn its decision to fire Nasr; I'm merely making observations and obviously don't know all the details.

British reporter Robert Fisk, whose work I dearly admire, has a great chapter in his book 'The Age of the Warrior' titled 'Poisonous academics and the claptrap of exclusion.' I'd strongly recommend you read it.

And yes, the Middle East conflict is absolutely horrible — one of the few conflicts where I can safely state that the complexities are more daunting than those that prevail in the Taiwan Strait.

mike said...

I am not accusing you of pretending anything, I am merely attempting to offer criticism of how you identified the issue and expressed yourself on it.

You said that CNN had no right to fire Nasr, which I see as either false (because CNN is a private company and are entitled to make their own decisions) or as requiring a corrupted notion of the right to private property (because it would imply that other people's right to private property is somehow contingent upon another person's overriding concern with social justice).

I understand your intention was simply to criticize CNN - but your choice of language carried implications beyond that, none of which were necessary to making that point.

Now If the White House for example had made some sort of threat to CNN to fire Nasr, then it would clearly be a freedom of expression issue - since coercion would clearly be involved and thus a violation not only of the right to free speech but also of the right to private property. The government has no business telling CNN whom it must fire.

As it is however, this is merely a private decision as to the best interests of CNN - and I would tend to agree with you that it is a poor decision.

I hope that comment clarifies...?

Anonymous said...

Jewish groups in the U.S. are alarmed by what they perceive as an increasing trend of "anti-Semitism" on the UC campuses. Unfortunately, too often people equate anti Isreal's policies to anti-Semitism. I don't believe the U.S. can handle Middle East in an impartial way given the strong influence of Jewish groups in American media, governments and culture. The action by CNN surprised no one.