Between Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and text messaging, I'm always a bit terrified that a fleeting opinion will come back to come back to haunt me. For instance, I once was appropriately chastised for making fun of an organization that I covered in my private Gmail chat status. So half of me reacted to Octavia Nasr's CNN firing over a tweet with a twinge of sympathy while the other half of me said, "What was she thinking?"
Nasr wrote on Twitter after the Shiite cleric died on Sunday, "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah...One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." File that one under "objective reporting fail."
Nasr was senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs and a 20-year veteran at CNN, so she should be no stranger to the ayatollah's controversial status. Reuters describes him as one of Shi'ite Islam's highest religious leaders, an early mentor of the militant group Hezbollah, and listed as a terrorist.
Following Nasr's firing, Mediaite posted an internal memo:
From Parisa Khosravi--SVP CNN International Newsgathering
I had a conversation with Octavia this morning and I want to share with you that we have decided that she will be leaving the company. As you know, her tweet over the weekend created a wide reaction. As she has stated in her blog on CNN.com, she fully accepts that she should not have made such a simplistic comment without any context whatsoever. However, at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.
As a colleague and friend we're going to miss seeing Octavia everyday. She has been an extremely dedicated and committed part of our team. We thank Octavia for all of her hard work and we certainly wish her all the best.
The New York Times reports that Nasr reported and provided analysis about the region for CNN's networks but did not run the CNN's Middle East coverage.
In a blog post on CNN, Nasr wrote, "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. That's not the case at all."
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.
My guess is that Nasr would not have been fired if she had tweeted something negative about the ayatollah, but maybe I'm wrong. So was she fired for having an opinion or having an opinion that angered many of CNN's constituents?
This does not bode well for reporters who are already worried about Twittercide or emailcide. Remember Dave Weigel? Many of the reports about Nasr's firing seem somewhat flippant. Here's Megan Gibson at Time: "Though she didn't say she regretted the sentiment, she does regret tweeting "such a simplistic comment." Seems that wasn't enough for critics and CNN." Here's The Guardian's lead, "Twitter, with its strict 140-character limit, was never going to be the best medium to make a nuanced point about Middle East politics. But Octavia Nasr gave it a go." Politico frames her firing as disappointment to Arab-Americans and spends more ink on the reporter's work at CNN than Fadlallah's controversial status.
It inevitably sets off the perennial discussion over how the difference between journalism and opinion is increasingly blurred. Newsbusters' publisher Brent Bozell says it was a "step in the right direction" while Stephen M. Walt writes at Foreign Policy that CNN's decision was spineless.
What's unclear is whether Nasr violated a CNN policy currently set in place. Business Insider reports on guidelines that were issued back in 2008.
"Again, on these sites only write about something CNN would not report on. Don't list preferences regarding political parties or newsmakers that are the subject of CNN reporting."
Maybe this serves as a warning to reporters who feel the urge to write a miniature epitaph on Twitter for their favorite sources. For instance, it will be interesting to see how reporters react to the deaths of religious leaders like the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham, and the Pope. The best coverage usually comes through capturing the leaders' influence through other people's eyes.