Was the CNN firing of Nasr really necessary?

I have to admit, from the time I heard CNN had fired Octavia Nasr for her Tweet on the death of Hezbollah spiritual leader Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah I was upset she wrote what she did and at the same time I thought firing was a bit harsh but probably necessary.

Her response to the uproar over her Tweet was the usual backpedaling “what I meant to say is…” variety. She is a journalist and should know the importance of the use of words. But her firing from CNN was a bit more problematic for me. And now, it appears it is also a problem for Tom Friedman.

In his July 16 column — Can We Talk? — Friedman points out the loss to journalism and to America’s understanding of the Middle East by the loss of Nasr.

[We] gain a great deal by having an Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-Christian female journalist covering the Middle East for CNN, and if her only sin in 20 years is a 140-character message about a complex figure like Fadlallah, she deserved some slack. She should have been suspended for a month, but not fired. It’s wrong on several counts.

For too many years news organizations have depended on parachute journalism to get stories from hot spots around the world. The ever shrinking presence of American media journalists around the world — with the exception of NPR and PBS — does Americans and American society a disservice.

Here is a woman who is fluent in three languages and whose heritage is Arabic. She knows the Arab cultures and societies in the Middle East and can speak their language. Name me other journalists so blessed with talent.

And her credentials as a journalist are also impeccable. This is a partial list from the CNN website, which still had her bio up as of today:

  • Edward R. Murrow Award  for Continuing Coverage of the 2006 war in Lebanon;
  • Golden Cable ACE Award in 1993 for CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War
  • Overseas Press Club Award in 2002 for CNN’s post 9-11 coverage.

Her comments were wrong. However, it is still possible to respect someone without signing on to all the other parts of that person’s life. (There are a number of us who will always respect Richard Nixon’s political skills while despising everything he did to damage the Constitution and integrity of the presidency.)

I don’t see how anyone could respect Fadlallah’s hate for Israel, the United States or most democratic institutions. Yet, according to Nasr, Fadlallah was a pioneer in defending women’s rights in Shia circles.

[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.

This, clearly is a position to be respected.

So the question is: Who will replace Nasr? How will CNN get news that explains how and why the Arab governments and societies operate the way they do. Anyone can report WHAT happened but the WHY is just as important.

And it is getting the WHY in international events that has been so weakened in the U.S. media. Having a bureau in London does not mean the reporters can get the full story in Poland or any of the African countries. Reporters are needed in key cities around the globe.

And yet, the U.S. news organizations keep pulling back. It is not enough to hire a few freelancers or pick up a story from “a partner” in another country. The foreign news needs to be made relevant to American audiences.

Americans are a notoriously isolated people. It is the responsibility of journalists to present news and information that people need to make intelligent decisions. And sometimes that means spending time and money to get the story right.

WHY a foreign event is important to Americans is just as vital as the WHAT and HOW of the event. And maybe it is time to start focusing on this point again.

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Filed under International News Coverage, Middle East

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