Friday, July 9, 2010

Tweet Your Way To Unemployment

CNN fired one of their key foreign correspondents on Thursday, after Octavia Nasr used her CNN Twitter account to express her sadness over the news of the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. But Fadlallah is often referred to as the spiritual head of the group Hezbollah, and Nasr’s tweet quickly raised the ire of supporters of Israel, since Israel not only views Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but also as a prime threat to their national security. Nasr replied that her comment about Fadlallah was driven by his “pioneering” work on women’s rights in the Arab world and her admission that the 140-character limit of a tweet probably wasn’t the best place to express a complex idea such as this, but that explanation wasn’t enough for her bosses at CNN, who quickly caved into pressure and fired her.

This has sparked some discussion in the blogosphere about free speech and First Amendment rights in reaction to Nasr’s firing. I think this is a little misguided – the First Amendment gives you the right to express yourself without pre-censorship, it’s not a blanket protection against action after the fact, and Nasr apparently did use her CNN Twitter account to post the message in question, which would give CNN the right to react in whatever way they think is reasonable to a use of their resources they view as unfit. The real question should be whether the tweet in question was a firing offense, and here I think CNN comes out on the short end of the argument.

During her 20-year career with the network, Nasr gave excellent and objective analysis on issues in the Middle East and was something increasingly rare on CNN – an analyst who actually knew something about global affairs (considering CNN made its reputation on its coverage of world events that’s pretty sad). Perhaps her tweet was poorly conceived or expressed an unpopular (to some) idea, but it’s a rather small offense weighed against the body of Nasr’s work on CNN. In their official explanation of Nasr’s firing, CNN said that her tweet “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.” But the “editorial standards” argument is a pretty weak one to make considering CNN’s recent decision to hire former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a man who transported a prostitute across statelines for an illicit affair – breaking several laws in the process, to revive CNN’s flagging ratings by hosting an hour-long program at 8pm (that is assuming Campbell Brown, who quit two months ago, ever stops doing her eight o’clock show…).

It seems that CNN is more than willing to overlook the personal failings of their on-air talent, so long as they believe they can deliver the ratings; it’s ok if they break the law, just as long as they don’t upset influential special interest groups; and that once again, foreign affairs coverage is taking a backseat at what use to be the world’s news channel. Sad really.
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