A Tweet too far: US editor latest victim of Internet Inquisition

A CNN senior editor is the latest high-ranking casualty in the virtual world of social blogging where a personally-held sentiment is becoming the ticket to an early retirement and worse.

In yet another case of an American journalist being sacked for expressing a controversial opinion, CNN announced that Octavia Nasr, senior editor of Middle East affairs “will be leaving the company” after the 20-year veteran said she “respected” the late Islamic cleric Ayatollah Fadlallah.

Commenting on the death of Ayatollah Fadlallah, Nasr wrote on the micro-blogging site Twitter: "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."

The governments of the United States and Israel view Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Parisa Khosravi, Senior Vice President of CNN International Newsgathering, explained Nasr’s dismissal in this internal memo: “I had a conversation with Octavia this morning and I want to share with you that we have decided that she will be leaving the company. As you know, her tweet over the weekend created a wide reaction [and]…at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.”

Octavia Nasr had this to say about her "error of judgment" on her blog page: "Reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and 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."

Nasr, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, explained that she was referring to Fadlallah’s “pioneering” views on women’s rights, not to the activities of Hezbollah per se.

Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, who died on Sunday at the age of 74, is credited with establishing many cultural and social centers in Lebanon, including a public library, a women’s cultural center and a hospital.

In other words, the individual whom Nasr “respected” was no Osama bin Laden.

Vladimir Kremlev for RT (click to enlarge)

Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, however, is also said to have provided the “spiritual inspiration” for Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group that began in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. For many, Hezbollah has been more than a militia; it has been a source of humanitarian assistance.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hezbollah “is a major provider of social services, operating schools, hospitals, and agricultural services for thousands of Lebanese Shiites.”

Conflict between Hezbollah and Israel erupted into full-scale war during the summer of 2006. An UN-brokered ceasefire was formalized on August 14, 2006, ending the five-week hostilities that resulted in the death of 1,000 people and many thousands injured.

Is the Internet killing freedom of speech?

Nasr’s dismissal comes just one month after veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas told Rabbi David Nesenoff during Jewish heritage Celebration Day in Washington that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine.”

The videotaped comments, which Nesenoff uploaded to his rabbilive.com site, quickly ended a reputable journalism career that spanned 10 US presidencies – from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.

Welcome to the brave new world of sensational “now” media, where even media figures airing their deepest, darkest thoughts are becoming grist to the 24/7 news/entertainment mill, which begs the question: Are journalists being conditioned to believe with every careless comment that hits the headlines that they should keep their opinions to themselves?

Moreover, are we quietly creating an electronic matrix of iron-clad opinion that does not tolerate dissent? Are only the globe-straddling news corporations powerful enough to enjoy the freedom of expressing their own views?

The firing of Helen Thomas, and now Octavia Nasr, for uttering controversial opinions threatens to undermine what the Internet was originally designed to do: encourage debate, encourage the freedom of speech, and encourage the town-hall spirit of public assemble. The Internet was never meant to be a hunting ground against controversial ideas; indeed, it was designed to cultivate opinion and debate, not as a tool for filtering out those individuals who challenge us with their views, however nonsensical they may appear.

Although many people were shocked by the comments uttered by Helen Thomas, and now by those of Ms. Nasr, what have we really gained from removing these people from public life? If anything, we have only increased the general sense of public paranoia, while further entrenching an oppressive regime of political correctness that inhibits people from speaking their minds.

With no end in sight for the Internet Inquisition, which casually burns people at the stake of their occasionally warped opinions, are we creating an Orwellian channel for weeding out “renegade” individuals who do not share our own personal beliefs; a tool for conforming everybody to one homogenous frame of mind?

After all, people have been talking nonsense for centuries, and certainly long before the creation of “social networking sites” appeared on the scene. Considering that almost everybody has had the unpleasant experience of pushing the “send” button prematurely, should we be so quick to castigate individuals for their offhand remarks? Should CNN stood more firmly by Ms. Nasr and not be so intimidated by a little dust being kicked up along the Internet superhighway, which, by the way, is starting to accumulate a lot of roadkill?

In the “good ole days,” when people discussed their ideas face-to-face, and their feelings without silly emoticons, there were far less chances of somebody being misunderstood – or fired from their job. The lesson that we should learn from this latest “blog fail” is not that it is somehow wrong to hold views that make others uncomfortable, but rather that, due to the very severe limitations of communicating with our fellow humans through electronically vicarious means, we express ourselves as clearly as possible – before hitting the send key. Meanwhile, companies – especially those that are in the business of spreading information – should not be so easily intimidated by the chattering voice of the Internet.

Finally, what happened to those “defenders of the freedom of the press” who told the world’s billion-strong Muslim community that they should be able to tolerate a few cartoons of Muhammad scribbled like schoolyard graffiti in those Danish newspapers? They are strangely silent today, despite losing their second media colleague in less than two months.

Before this ugly trend turns into entrenched practice, the media community should demand an end to the Internet Inquisition, which is threatening the very foundation of the profession.

Robert Bridge, RT