Octavia Nasr’s firing and what The Liberal Media allows

By Glenn Greenwald

(updated below)

CNN yesterday ended the 20-year career of Octavia Nasr, its Atlanta-based
Senior Middle East News Editor, because of a now-deleted tweet she wrote
on Sunday upon learning of the death of one of the Shiite world’s most
beloved religious figures: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed
Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah  . . . . One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a
lot.”  That message spawned an intense fit of protest from Far Right outlets, Thought Crime enforcers, and other neocon precincts,
and CNN quickly (and characteristically) capitulated to that pressure
by firing her.  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.”  Within this episode lies several important lessons about
media “objectivity” and how the scope of permissible views is enforced.

First, consider which viewpoints
cause someone to be fired from The Liberal Media.  Last month, Helen
Thomas’ 60-year career as a journalist ended when she expressed the exact
view about Jews which numerous public figures have
expressed
(with no consequence or even controversy) about
Palestinians.  Just weeks ago, The Washington Post accepted the
“resignation” of Dave Weigel because of scorn he heaped on right-wing
figures such as Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh.  CNN’s Chief News
Executive, Eason Jordan, was previously forced to resign after he provoked a right-wing fit
of fury over comments he made about the numerousand obviously disturbingincidents
where the U.S. military had injured or killed journalists in war zones.  NBC fired Peter Arnett for criticizing the U.S. war
plan on Iraqi television
, which prompted accusations of Treason from
the Right.  MSNBC demoted and then fired its rising star Ashleigh
Banfield after she criticized American media war coverage
for adhering to the Fox model of glorifying U.S. wars; the same network
fired its top-rated host, Phil Donahue, due to its fear of being perceived as anti-war; and
its former reporter, Jessica Yellin, confessed
that
journalists were “under enormous pressure from
corporate executives
” to present the news in a pro-war and
pro-Bush manner.

What each of these firing offenses
have in common is that they angered and offended the neocon Right. 
Isn’t that a strange dynamic for the supposedly Liberal Media:  the only
viewpoint-based firings of journalists are ones where the journalist
breaches neoconservative orthodoxy?  Have there ever been any
viewpoint-based firings of establishment journalists by The Liberal
Media because of comments which offended liberals?  None that I can
recall.  I foolishly thought that when George Bush’s
own Press Secretary
mocked the American media for being “too
deferential” to the Bush administration
, that would at least put a
dent in that most fictitious American myth:  The Liberal Media.  But it
didn’t; nothing does, not even the endless spate of journalist firings
for deviating from right-wing dogma.

Beyond journalism, speech codes
concerning the Middle East are painfully biased and one-sided.  Chas
Freeman was barred from a government position — despite a long
and accomplished record of public service — due to AIPAC-led
anger
over comments deemed insufficiently devoted to Israel.  Juan
Cole was denied a tenured position at Yale after a vicious neocon campaign based on his allegedly
anti-Israel remarks
, and Norman Finklestein suffered the same fate, despite a
unanimous committee recommendation for tenure, after an
Alan-Dershowitz-led demonization campaign based on his blasphemous
scholarship about Israel.  Does anyone ever suffer
career-impeding injuries of this type — the way Nasr and Thomas also
just have — for expressing anti-Muslim or anti-Arab views?  No.  The
speech prohibitions and thought crimes on the Middle East all run in one
direction:  to enforce “pro-Israel” orthodoxies.  Does this long list
of examples leave room for doubt about that fact?

* * * * *

Then there’s the Nasr case
itself.  Look at how our discourse is completely distorted and
dumbed-down by the same stunted, cartoonish neocon orthodoxies that have
also destroyed our foreign policy.  In our standard political
discussions, the simplistic and false notion — obviously accepted by CNN
— drives the discussion:  Fadlallah is an Evil Hezbollah
Terrorist!!
, and Nasr probably is as well given the
“respect” she expressed for him during his death.  Thus:  CNN got
caught employing an Israel-hating Terrorist-lover, and once she
revealed herself, she had to be fired immediately!!!!
That
really is the primitive level of agitprop churned out by neocon
polemicists and then dutifully ingested and embraced by CNN.

The reality, though, is completely
different.  Fadlallah was a revered figure to a large chunk of the
world, and was quite mainstream even in parts of the West.  As the AP put it today, Fadlallah was “one of Shiite
Islam’s highest and most revered religious authorities with a following
that stretched beyond Lebanon’s borders to Iraq, the Gulf and as far
away as central Asia.”  Ironically, he was the religious guide for
Iraq’s Dawa Party:  the party of our close ally, Iraqi Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki, who took the very unusual step of leaving Iraq to attend
Fadlallah’s funeral
.  As ThinkProgress’
Matt Duss put it
:

So here’s the neocon logic:  When a
reporter acknowledges the passing of a revered, if controversial figure
in a way that doesn’t sufficiently convey what a completely evil
terrorist neocons think that figure was — that’s unacceptable.  But when
the United States spends nearly a trillion dollars, loses over 4,000 of
its own troops and over 100,000 Iraqis to establish a new
government largely dominated by that same “terrorist’s” avowed acolytes —
that’s victory.

Writing in Foreign Policy — not exactly a
radical, Terrorist-loving outlet – David Kenner described how even
moderate, U.S.-friendly officials such as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad
Hariri praised Fadlallah as “a voice of moderation and an advocate of
unity,” and Kenner documents that even Fadlallah’s alleged ties to
Hezbollah are dubious at best.

Most striking, the British Ambassador
to Lebanon
, Frances Guy, heaped praise on Fadlallah far more
gushing than anything Nasr said.  In a piece she entitled ”The Passing of Decent Men,”
Ambassador Guy wrote that he was one of the people whom she enjoyed
meeting most and with whom she was most impressed; that he was “a true
man of religion, leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what
their faith”; that “Lebanon is a lesser place the day after his
absence”; and that “the world needs more men like him willing to reach
out across faiths.”

And Nasr herself wrote a moving explanation after the controversy
over her tweet erupted, explaining that the respect she expressed for
Fadlallah had nothing to do with some of his uglier views about the
justifiability of civilian attacks on Israel or Holocaust disparagement,
but was rather driven by his important and virtuous call for greater
rights and respect for Muslim women, his desire for greater religious
tolerance in Muslim nations, and the fact that he “spread what many
considered a more moderate voice of Shia Islam than what was coming out
of Iran.”  She recounted the respect he showed her when she interviewed
him 20 years ago.  And she explained that “it was his commitment to
Hezbollah’s original mission — resisting Israel’s occupation of
Lebanon
— that made him popular and respected among many
Lebanese, not just people of his own sect.”  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
.

In other words, like many people
involved in protracted and religiously-motivated violent conflicts,
Fadlallah was a profoundly complex figure, with some legitimate
grievances, some entrenched hatreds and ugly viewpoints, and a
substantial capacity for good.  Nasr was expressing a very mild and
restrained form of sadness and respect for someone who had just died: 
sentiments shared in much stronger form by hundreds of millions
of people
in the Muslim and even Western world.  The sentiment
she expressed, while infuriating neocons, is widespread and completely
unnotable for large parts of the world.

What makes Nasr’s summary firing
even more astonishing is that Nasr herself was an unremarkable
journalist who rarely if ever provoked controversy, had no history of
anti-Israel or pro-Terrorist sentiments, and blended perfectly into the
American corporate media woodwork.  Indeed, Middle East
expert and neocon critic Nir Rosen ironically noted yesterday
that —
as almost happened to Michael Steele — “Octavia Nasr got fired for the
one smart thing she ever said.”  And behold the July 4 message sent on Twitter by this
subversive, America-hating, Terrorist-loving menace from whom CNN had to
protect us all:

This was a banal and very cautious
establishment journalist who survived and advanced at Time Warner, Inc.
for 20 years by adhering to all the prevailing codes.

But no matter:  as we’ve seen
repeatedly, in American media and political culture, Middle East
orthodoxies are the most sacred and inviolable.  Thus, her 2o-year
loyal service is brushed to the side because of a 140-character blip of
blasphemy.  As the Palestinian-American
journalist Ali Abunimah put it
: she ”wasn’t particularly
groundbreaking. That’s the point.  EVEN someone usually so cautious
cannot survive.”  He
added
:  ”More than ever, [CNN, NPR, The New York Times]
are purveyors of official, accepted opinion. Their job is to police
what/who we can hear.”  That’s what Nicholas Kristof meant when, writing today from Jerusalem, he observed that
Israel “tolerates a far greater range of opinions than America”:
  it’s even more acceptable to utter blasphemy about Israel in Israel
than it is in the U.S., as Octavia Nasr was but the latest to discover.

* * * * *

With the Nasr firing, here we find
yet again exposed the central lie of American establishment
journalism:  that opinion-free “objectivity” is possible, required, and
the governing rule.  The exact opposite is true:  very strong opinions
are not only permitted but required.  They just have to be the right
opinions:  the official, approved ones.  Just look at the
things that are allowed.  The Washington Post lavished editorial praise on the brutal, right-wing
tyrant Augusto Pinochet
, and that caused no controversy.  AP’s
Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier got caught sending secret, supportive emails to Karl Rove,
and nothing happened.  Benjamin Netanyahu formally celebrates the Terrorist
bombing of the King David Hotel
that killed 91 78 civilians and nobody
is stigmatized for supporting him.  Erick Erickson sent around the most rancid and arguably racist tweets, only to thereafter be hired
as a CNN contributor.  And as Jonathan Schwarz wrote of the Nasr firing:

William Barr is on the board of directors of Time
Warner, the parent company of CNN. Barr was a senior adviser in the
Reagan administration, which attempted to assassinate Fadlallah, missing him and killing more than eighty bystanders.

Having someone who was part of the
slaughter of 80 civilians in Lebanon on your Board is fine.  And having
a former AIPAC official with an obvious bias toward Israel (just watch
Blitzer in this 5-minute clip if you have doubts about that)
is perfectly consistent with a news network’s “credibility.” But
expressing sadness over the death of an Islamic cleric beloved by much
of the Muslim world is not.  Whatever is driving that, it has nothing
to do with “objectivity.”

All of this would be so much more
tolerable if CNN would simply admit that it permits its journalists to
hold and express some controversial opinions (ones in accord with
official U.S. policy and orthodox viewpoints) but prohibits
others (ones which the neocon Right dislikes).  Instead, we are
subjected to this patently false pretense of opinion-free objectivity.

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.

UPDATE:  Obviously related to all of
this:  many of the most extremist neocons this morning (TNR’s
Jamie Kirchick
, Martin Kramer, The
Weekly Standard
’s John Noonan
, Red
State
’s Josh Trevino
, the ”Republican
Jewish Coalition”
) are falling all over themselves in praise of this 2,800-word attack on me in The New Ledger
for my views on Israel.  Written by Benjamin Kerstein — a
standard-issue, Israel-devoted neocon smear artist whose self-selected
slogan
is “Bostonian by birth, Israeli by choice
and who has written similar screeds about other heretics such as Howard Zinn, Noam
Chomsky
(a
whole blog devoted to that
), and even Peter Beinart — it’s filled to the brim with
trite neocon attacks that once worked to deter free debate but are now
pitiable in their impotence:

The fallout from the
Gaza flotilla incident has occasioned some of the most reprehensible
writing that the anti-Israel establishment — which specializes in such
things — has ever produced. Beyond question, however, one of the most
egregious examples of this is the work Salon.com columnist Glenn
Greenwald, whose comically overwrought pseudo-jeremiads on the subject
constitute a case study in the kind of intellectual corruption that now
appears to be the inevitable result of the bigoted hatred of
Israel typical of today’s American progressivism
. . .  .

Greenwald is such a
quintessentially anti-American, pseudo-pacifist, pro-terrorist,
self-hating Jewish liberal
that that he essentially
constitutes a living cliche. . . .A concerted fan of genocide apologist
and pro-terrorist intellectual Noam Chomsky, Greenwald appears to have
adopted several Chomskyite qualities as his own . . . .The
implications of this, and of Greenwald’s quite selective outrage when
it comes to such casualties, are not surprising — but they are
disturbing. They point, moreover, to the darker motivations behind
Greenwald’s rhetorical violence. Put simply, he appears to believe that
dead Palestinians and their supporters matter, while dead Israelis do
not. . . .

He is terrified that if
he defends Israel, or even fails to denounce it in the most hysterical
terms possible, he will be seen by his fellow progressives not as one
of them, but as a Jew. And, as a Jew, he will also be automatically
seen as a heretic and a traitor. To give credit where credit is due, he
is probably right.

It goes on and on like that.  There
has been a palpable increase in these sorts of attacks:  first after
I criticized Israel for its horrific attack on Gaza, then after
defending Chas Freeman from the McCarthyite attempts to ruin his
career, and now especially after condemning the Israeli killing of 9
people aboard the flotilla.  Most of this is self-refuting, and more
than that, gratifying.  I view the increasingly unhinged attacks by the
worst neocon elements to be a vindication of what I’m doing.  I see
them as pernicious and destructive, and genuinely welcome their
contempt (at Alternet, Charles Davis provides just some
of the reasons
why these neocon smears in general, and the one
aimed today at me in particular, are so lame and tired that one can
hardly get oneself to care enough to respond).

Source: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/index.html

Glenn
Greenwald
was previously a
constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the
author of two New York Times Bestselling books: “How Would a Patriot Act?” (May, 2006), a critique
of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, and “A Tragic Legacy” (June, 2007), which examines the
Bush legacy. His most recent book, “Great American Hypocrites”, examines the
manipulative electoral tactics used by the GOP and propagated by the
establishment press, and was released in April, 2008, by Random
House/Crown.
E-mail:
GGreenwald@salon.com

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