Firing of CNN’s Octavia Nasr and the myth of objectivity
This week one of CNN’s senior editors, a reporter who’s been with the broadcaster for 20 years, was fired for tweeting about her “respect” for a Hezbollah founder. The story, we think, says something about CNN’s identity crisis and the ascendancy of opinionated journalism.
It was a dumb move, any way you look at it. On Sunday morning, after hearing of the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a founder of Hezbollah, CNN’s senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr decided to compose a tweet expressing her grief. Had she done it in her personal capacity, with a Twitter handle, say, like Octavacious or Nasrific, she probably would still have had her desk and salary. But she did it using her official CNN Twitter account, which kind of reflects the views of her employers, and one thing mainstream media bosses don’t like is a worker who pokes a hole in their carefully woven cloak of objectivity.
Here’s what Nasr wrote that fateful Sunday: "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon."
Eish. One wonders whether she had a moment of doubt before she tapped down with her right index finger on the “enter” key, whether there was a little voice at the back of her (ordinarily impressive) brain telling her to go outside with a cup of coffee and think it over. Who knows? Maybe it will all come out in the memoir.
Either way, the mere fact that the tweet was a reality for a while, even though it was quickly removed from Nasr’s feed, is enough to add another rule to the “Don’t Tweet Drunk” list: Don’t Tweet Pro-Terrorism Stuff, Even If Not Everyone Will Think It’s Pro-Terrorism Stuff, And Especially If You Work For An International Broadcaster Based In Atlanta.
On Tuesday, following a barrage of criticism from readers and viewers, Nasr attempted to explain herself on a CNN blog, where the word-limit extends beyond 140 characters.
“It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I'm sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah's life's work,” she stated. “That's not the case at all.
“Here's what I should have conveyed more fully: I used the words ‘respect’ and ‘sad’ because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman's rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of ‘honor killing.’ He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.”
But the damage had been done. On Wednesday, Nasr was a summoned to a meeting in Atlanta with her managers, and it appears that the end of her 20-year career with the broadcaster came swiftly. The New York Times quoted an internal memo in which Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president for CNN International Newsgathering, confirmed that Nasr would be “leaving the company.” Khosravi also wrote: “At this point, we believe that [Nasr’s] credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.”
What’s also been compromised, of course, is CNN’s aforementioned cloak of objectivity. Media Studies departments at many Western universities (including Wits, Stellenbosch and Rhodes) offer courses on this sort of thing, and one of the theories they posit is that editorial objectivity is a myth anyway – an institutional failsafe set up at the start of the mass media age to imbue journalism with a healthy, and necessary, dollop of authority.
Briefly, the theory debunks the idea that an objective view can be arrived at by interviewing “both sides of a story,” or by “allowing the subject of a story time to respond.” At most, goes the argument, this amounts to “balance” or “fairness,” with objectivity being a different and more complex matter entirely. Can comments from two or three people who disagree over something ever really amount to objective reality? Isn’t the world made up of a myriad of competing realities, none of which can be adequately represented within the self-imposed constraints and dead sentences of journalese?
Which is not to contend, as per the more extreme exponents of the theory, that the pursuit of objectivity is a worthless ideal. Many reporters have died in defence of it, and their names should be honoured. It’s to say, rather, that in an age where the proliferation of new media forms has taken journalism back to its more overtly opinionated roots, those brands without a personality are going to suffer. And CNN hasn’t known who or what it is for a while now.
By Kevin Bloom