Friday, July 9, 2010

Octavia Nasr Gone from CNN like Helen Thomas from the Press Room: Freedom of Speech...with Consequences

Senior Journalist Octavia Nasr's head shot from her CNN Bio page

When I first perceived that Octavia Nasr had been fired by CNN, and that the blogosphere was abuzz about it, I wasn't aware of why she had "agreed to leave the company", and thought perhaps she had gone the way of so many other "prominent journalists" or announcers at CNN who come and go without any explanation, only to be replaced by another generic talking head of the CNN ilk. What I have seen of Octavia Nasr's on-air journalism in the past seemed to me well-informed, earnest, and enthusiastic (very important at CNN), but tame, toned down, lacking in the depth and courage of a Hanan Ashrawi. Then again, Hanan Ashrawi makes the news, and is a professor, activist, and politician, not a reporter, though was a frequent media guest.

When I had a moment to "google", I discovered the why of Octavia Nasr's firing, which indeed puts this in a separate category from the "well-coiffed and well-disappeared". I was particularly struck by an article in SalonOctavia Nasr's firing and what the liberal media allows, by Glenn Greenwald. This article covers what came to my mind, and a whole lot more, with links and updates, including about the ad hominem attacks on him following the online publication of his article.

In essence, what came to my mind was, "A 147 stroke count and CNN felt it necessary to jettison a 20-year veteran of their corporation, an exceedingly mild one, yet they lionize Wolf Blitzer, self-acknowledged Zionist with few on air qualms about showing it." Much the same came to Greenwald's mind. Like others, he draws a comparison with Helen Thomas, yet another Christian Arab staple of the US media, recently "retired" for daring to voice an AIPAC-unfriendly view on the Palestine-Israel question. Good for Greenwald! I am in full agreement with the egregiousness of how Helen Thomas was treated and why. He goes on to cite others who are shut down, and shut out, of American media, academia, and power circles, with links to their stories too, including Norman Finklestein, and Juan Cole.

Well, Norman Finklestein I knew about, and he does infuriate others (particularly Dershowitz) with his "child of Holocaust survivors" bona fides, Princeton PhD, numerous books, his undeniable scholarship, position on the left, and his guilt by association with Noam Chomsky--another Jewish pariah for his Palestinian politics but well-ensconced in academia before embarking on this political adjunct to his linguistic career.

But Juan Cole? Juan Cole denied tenure at Yale for political reasons? Juan Cole is "moderate" to say the least. Sure, he puts the darling of the Bush administration's and the right's preferred view of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, under a critical lens (someone had to do it), but, aside from that, he seems to occupy the clear academic and political middle. Half the time I don't know whose side he is on, but find him intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate, even when I disagree. He is certainly, like Norman Finklestein, academically honest and rigorous.

Greenwald points out with a screen shot, since it now seems necessary, how anti-American Nasr isn't:

Similarly "The Tweet", while open to interpretation was hardly a call to arms, and The Blog Post Explanation provides a necessary context for a controversial topic (caveat tweetor):
"Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah . . . . One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."
As the fuller description of the "respect" makes clear, Nasr admires his recent positions for women's rights and against "honour killings". She admired his courage in meeting with her as a junior reporter, in remaining true to Lebanon, in making controversial statements for the time, including showing a sense of humour, and daring her then employer LBC to air the interview without edits. They did.

As she and others have pointed out, Fadlallah long ago fell out of favour with Hezbollah, for objecting to their expansion beyond the Lebanese cause. Greenwald explains Fadlallah's anti-American bias (ay, there's the rub), "By all accounts, Fadlallah became particularly radicalized in his hostility toward the U.S. when the Reagan administration -- working in concert with Saudi Arabia -- attempted to assassinate him with a car bomb in Beirut, missed, and slaughtered 80 innocent civilians instead."

As Greenwald concludes his article:
The reality is that "pro-Israel" is not considered a viewpoint at all; it's considered "objective." That's why there's no expression of it too extreme to result in the sort of punishment which Nasr just suffered (preceded by so many others before her). Conversely, while Hezbollah is seen by much of the world as an important defense against Israeli aggression in Lebanon, the U.S. Government has declared it a Terrorist organization, and therefore "independent" U.S. media outlets such as CNN dutifully follow along by firing anyone who expresses any positive feelings about anyone who, in turn, has any connection to that group. That's how tenuous and distant the thought crime can be and still end someone's career. It's true that much of the world sees some of Hezbollah's actions as Terrorism; much of the world sees Israel's that way as well. CNN requires the former view while prohibiting the latter. As usual, our brave journalistic outlets not only acquiesce to these suffocating and extremely subjective restrictions on what our political discourse allows; they lead the way in enforcing them.
It seems to me that in her explanation Nasr fell short. Not because she didn't explain well or sufficiently, but because Nasr failed to make the sort of abject apology, mea culpa, Act of Contrition, required in such circumstances; or, as Madeleine Albright opined about President Bill Clinton's ultimate apology to staff--and eventually the public--the kind of  public declaration of sin, asking for forgiveness, and seeking redemption through confession, rehabilitation, and good deeds that American politics requires, and which left Albright puzzled and dissatisfied. In Nasr's case it probably wouldn't have helped, because the "sin" was too great, a mortal not a venal one as her Catholic upbringing would have taught her; but, it would have been more in keeping with the ethos of transgression and repair in the American collective unconscious (or not so un-conscious).

For indeed, there is freedom of speech in the US, but not freedom from consequences, even where there has been no hate speech, no call to arms, no treasonous discourse.

My bottom line: I can understand, and warn others, that anything said against your employer anywhere will get you fired and the firing will be seen as justified--which leads one to the question, who was Octavia Nasr's employer at CNN? How far removed is the US government, the Jewish Lobby, AIPAC, whomever else? Or was this one of those unhappy colleague threatens to quit unless person is fired, and carries more clout, firings? And which of the colleagues might that be (Blitzer's views are not unique)? Or is it the higher ups?

Further thoughts: After reading the comments, and the links provided by commentator Shafiq, I had some further thoughts. Thank you to all the commentators! I made more of a search than previously to confirm if Senior VP Parisa Khorsavi is as Iranian an American as her name sounds, and indeed she is. That makes me wonder if part of the reason for the firing was one Middle Easterner proving her American loyalties at the expense of another, as is a common dynamic among minorities employed in the mainstream, and where there is controversy directly related to their ethnicity or religion. On the other hand, maybe she is more a messenger than an agent. Still, her desire to dissociate herself from Nasr, and from Fadlallah, suspected of Iranian sympathies, is palpable. It would even seem more reasonable, rather than firing, to either back Nasr's explanation, or bury her in CNN International for a while until any American or AIPAC reaction died down. However, in this case the sentencing had to be swift and draconian, it seems.

As Shafiq pointed out, Robert Fisk is "scathing" in his condemnation of the firing, and I would add blisteringly knowledgeable and unequivocal--Robert Fisk: CNN was wrong about Ayatollah Fadlallah. As often is the case, Fisk has met with the Ayatollah, been there (the Lebanese War) and done that (put himself in danger, advocated for Terry Anderson's release). If only for the life saving words that helped spare Anderson, Fadlallah is deserving of a more nuanced treatment than his death and those who tweet about it have been given. I highly recommend Fisk's article, it is worth the content, and the expression "blogapop". I would also highly recommend Shafiq's other link, to another been there (the Middle East) done that (CIA officer) type, Robert Baer, for his perspective on The Death of Fadlallah: The Misunderstood Shi'a Cleric

As Ellen and Wendy pointed out, Fadlallah has a more complex profile than he is given credit for, and Nasr had no less freedom of speech than one would expect. Thanks again to all the commentators, and to Shafiq for the links. I do hope others will weigh in.

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I remember coming across the story on the day it happened, having not heard of Octavia Nasr before that. I found it shocking (she worked there for 20 years!), but was even more outraged when I find out that Fadlallah wasn't even a Hizbullah man

Robert Fisk was scathing in his criticism of CNN for what happened.

The irony of this all is that she voiced an opinion that was hardly controversial at all.

ellen557 said...

I find that very sad. Fadlallah did a LOT for women's rights (he really was like a revolutionary in this area) and to fire someone for acknowledging that is ridiculous. Grr.

Wendy said...

So much for freedom of speech!

Anonymous said...

As an Arab it is frustrating to see this double standard in American media. I know the situation is bad in our countries but we don't go around screaming off the rooftops about our freedom of speech.

Susanne said...

Thanks for the info. I'm wondering, too, why she was fired for that. :/

Chiara said...

Thank you all for commenting, and my apologies for the delay in replying.

Shafiq--thanks for the excellent links! How could I forget to check in with Robert Fisk! The first place one should look for commentary! :)

So true, that she made a non-controversial comment in a 20 year career of non-controversial comments. More and more I think that this was a convenient external excuse for an inhouse dynamic. Thanks again for your comment and links.

Ellen--thanks for commenting here, and I appreciate from your own post on Fadlallah what a loss he was to his current followers. The firing is definitely overkill!

Wendy--Indeed! Thanks for your comment!

Saudiwoman-thank you for commenting, and I agree that in some ways this must strike Arab women much closer to the bone than others, although all can share in the idea of an unjust political firing--they are so rampant. The 2009 Worldwide Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders ranks the USA 20, up from the 36 of the Bush years, out of ~135. Saudi of course ranks much lower as do many MENA countries. However, many fail to recognize how much the US media are controlled by corporate interests and that on certain topics the government is in the shadows determining what gets aired and what doesn't. There has been improvement under Obama but also disappointment. The report listing and the brief overview are worth reading, here. As for the double standard, I remember watching a report on the Gaza offensive and a woman Palestinian journalist being interviewed by a US cable network. She kept saying "We know you are pro-Israel, we don't expect anything different, just please report the humanitarian abuses. I lived in the USA for 3 years, I don't bother questioning the bias, just please report the bombings of hospitals", etc. Very striking testimony to the double standard!
Thanks again for your comment!

Susanne--thank you for your comment. It is indeed a firing that is hard to explain except as an aberration, or rather the normal for certain "offenses". :(


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