Tweet at your professional peril: CNN editor sacked

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

And with those words, sent into the ether via Twitter, Octavia Nasr’s career as CNN’s Middle East editor came to an ubrupt and, some might say, undignified end. She was sacked shortly afterwards because her credibility had been “compromised”, a CNN employee said.

She had worked for CNN for 20 years.

In her blog, possibly the last words she utters as a CNN editor, she said:

Reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and a provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East.

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.

Here’s what I should have conveyed more fully:

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…

Nasr went on at some length, trying to explain that in the Middle East and the context of Islamic politics, it is possible to respect people for their work in some areas even though their positions on other matters might be abhorrent to many people in the other parts of the world, especially the non-Muslim world.

She concludes: “Sayyed Fadlallah. Revered across borders yet designated a terrorist. Not the kind of life to be commenting about in a brief tweet. It’s something I deeply regret.”

Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, who died on Sunday, was an early leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah. Based in Lebanon, it is Israel’s chief enemy alongside Hamas. Among other things, the ayatollah had supported suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

The New York Times reported that Israeli lobby groups in the United States quickly picked up on her tweet and questioned whether she was a “Hezbollah sympathizer”. Soon after, she was sacked.

Personally I think this is a terrible way to treat an employee who has done nothing wrong except express a nuanced, personal opinion about a complicated figure in a complicated part of the world. She forgot that in CNN’s world, there’s no grey, only black and white. In this case, no good Hezbollah leader, only bad. Nothing at all worth admiring, just another crazed terrorist. It says a lot about CNN.

Another thing I find disturbing about all this is that Nasr was supposed to be, in CNN’s words, a “leader in integrating social media with newsgathering and reporting”. She regularly spoke on TV about social media in the Middle East. If anyone should have known about the professional pitfalls of this kind of communication it should have been her.

(Photo courtesy of magerleagues via flickr)

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