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CNN’s Mideast problem

Inter Press Service

CNN’s firing last week of Octavia Nasr, the editor responsible for the network’s Middle East coverage, over a Twitter post in which she expressed her sadness over the death of a Lebanese cleric has set off a firestorm of debate about what the decision says about CNN’s fairness in reporting on the region.

On Sunday, Nasr wrote, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot,” on her Twitter account, which is followed by over 7,000 readers.

Fadlallah was an inspirational figure for Lebanese Shiites and an early supporter of Hezbollah.

Fadlallah, who initially supported the use of suicide bombings as a means of resistance against the occupation of Lebanon and Palestine, later criticised Hezbollah for its close ties to Iran, as well as Ayatollah Khomeini’s velayet- e faqih “rule of the clerics”, which Khomeini imposed in Iran in 1979.

Critics of Fadlallah have charged that he was staunchly anti-U.S., and had been linked to bombings that killed more than 260 U.S. citizens, but others have pointed to the cleric’s support for women’s rights and fatwas against female circumcision and honour killings as evidence of his comparatively progressive position.

After the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and a number of right-wing news outlets and blogs took issue with her expression of regret over Fadlallah’s death, on Tuesday, Nasr wrote another Twitter post in which she attempted to clarify her earlier comment and emphasised her admiration of Fadlallah’s defence of women’s rights.

“Fadlallah, designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a specially designated terrorist, disseminated numerous fatawa’ supporting terrorist operations and was a vocal supporter of terrorism against Israeli targets,” read a statement from the ADL on Tuesday.

“It is clearly an impropriety for a CNN journalist/editor to express such a partisan viewpoint as Ms. Nasr did in her tweet,” the statement continued.

“How did CNN senior editor of Middle East affairs Octavia Nasr celebrate July 4? By mourning the passing of Hezbollah’s Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah,” blogged Daniel Halper at the neoconservative Weekly Standard.

But other journalists and watchdog groups expressed concern over the speed with which CNN fired Nasr and the emergence of a double-standard when reporting on Middle Eastern affairs.

“The network – which has employed a former AIPAC official, Wolf Blitzer, as its primary news anchor for the last 15 years – justified its actions by claiming that Nasr’s ‘credibility’ had been ‘compromised,'” wrote Salon’s Glenn Greenwald in an article in which he went on to argue that Nasr was fired for offending the “neocon Right” by expressing regret over the death of a “profoundly complex figure, with some legitimate grievances, some entrenched hatreds and ugly viewpoints, and a substantial capacity for good.”

Peter Hart, activism director at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, told IPS that, “If there was some suggestion that she had been producing questionable journalism over all these years you’d think this would have been an issue before this, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. So it’s a decision which is disconnected from any sensible policy. The real problem is that she said something which offended very powerful people and that was her mistake.”

Nasr had worked for the Atlanta-based CNN for 20 years and rarely appeared on-air except for occasional appearances as an analyst in discussions on Middle East news. She had no history of an anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian bias and, according to Greenwald, “blended perfectly into the American corporate media woodwork”.

“Octavia Nasr got fired for the one smart thing she ever said,” quipped journalist Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security, in a Twitter post.

“[P]lenty of American journalists and politicians have shown ‘respect’ (and in some cases, fawning admiration) for various world figures with hands far bloodier than Ayatollah Fadlallah – including Mao Zedong, Ariel Sharon, the Shah of Iran, or even Kim il Sung – but it didn’t cost them their jobs,” wrote Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Questions have been raised over why Nasr, known as an uncontroversial reporter of Middle East affairs, was fired so quickly for an off-the-cuff Twitter post.

According to some observers, her unwillingness to conform to the narrative depicted by a number of right-wing news outlets and U.S. Jewish groups that Fadlallah was a terrorist, anti-US and anti-Semitic resulted in CNN receiving pressure to fire her.

“Nasr’s comment was enough to spark fierce outrage from the various precincts of the neocon blog/twittersphere, who went after Nasr for her egregious failure to reduce Fadlallah to an anti-Israel, anti-American terrorist bogeyman,” blogged Matt Duss, a National Security Researcher at the liberal Center For American Progress.

While right-wing news outlets, such as the Weekly Standard and the conservative WorldNetDaily gleefully reported on Nasr’s departure from CNN, others expressed concern for the double standard which has emerged when discussing Middle East affairs in the US mainstream media.

“The standard here is based on nothing that Nasr reported for CNN. [Her Twitter post] was barely a one sentence expression of sympathy. Firing her was a decision that was completely disconnected from her work so it’s a decision that’s very troubling. Lou Dobbs’s thoughts about immigrants were on CNN every night and CNN stood by him as the criticism mounted and the factual inaccuracies piled up,” said Hart.

“In this case, a stray comment is enough to terminate someone’s role at CNN almost overnight,” he said. “The discrepancy is rather revealing and CNN would have a very hard time revealing precisely what their policy is on this. It’s hard to find precedent for this. She has a history of covering the region and that is not easily replaced.”

Eli Clifton writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org).

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