Speak your mind, lose your job is the lesson I'm taking away from yesterday's sacking of CNN senior editor Octavia Nasr. Nasr, who had worked for the network for 20 years, tweeted this upon the death of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah:
Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot.
Nasr promptly published a mea culpa, blaming the 140-character brevity of Twitter for her "error of judgment." She regretted having tried to express complex views about Fadlallah's life's work in a simplistic forum. Then, she spent 3,964 characters trying to clarify her tweet and save her job. No luck. An internal CNN memo obtained by the New York Times stated that Nasr was sent packing because "her credibility" had "been compromised."
The dumping of Nasr follows the defenestration of Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, whose resignation was accepted on June 25 after intemperate comments he had made about conservatives in a private listserv were leaked to FishbowlDC and the Daily Caller.
Weigel's acerbic listserv comments, some made before he went to work for the Post, bad-mouthed some of the very conservatives he had been hired to cover. Weigel called upon Matt Drudge to torch himself, labeled Newt Gingrich an "amoral blowhard," and otherwise disparaged conservatives. Weigel, too, has apologized, saying he regrets his rudeness and "hubris." In an Esquire.com piece published today, Weigel writes that he "had a bad habit of using [the listserv] as an idea latrine." (Idea Latrine would be a great name for a band.)
In the wake of Weigel's departure, his ultimate boss, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, offered this mind-bending statement to Post reporter Howard Kurtz. "[W]e can't have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. ... There's abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody's viewpoint." [Ellipsis in the original.]
Brauchli seems to be saying that Post reporters can bring biases to their journalism, just as long as they don't reveal them. But the post-ellipsis part of his statement appears to contradict that reading, because if everybody were to suddenly become transparent about their viewpoints at the Post, perception of bias would rise, crest, and surely swamp readers. And Brauchli can't possibly want that.
Brauchli's confusion over where reporters should stow their personal luggage—in a dark and locked closet or in the vestibule where anybody can pick through it—goes to the center of the two controversies. That journalists have opinions and express them in private and sometimes (to their frequent regret) in public should come as no shocker. If you prick them, they bleed, too.
But such biases shouldn't be thought of as invasive weeds, choking the garden, but as nutrients. The job of a journalist is to gather evidence, test it, and come to conclusions wherever feasible. Such an enterprise is impossible to undertake without biases. Indeed, like scientific inquiries, almost every new story begins with some sort of bias or hunch or leaning. A reporter or an editor thinks this story is more promising or interesting than that story, therefore they agree to pursue it. But without reporting both stories—or every possible story, which is impossible—how can the editor and reporter really know which was the "right" story to assign? They can't. They can only trust their biases.
Biases may be necessary for the production of quality journalism, but as anybody who has ever listened to a blowhard or read a listserv or Twitter feed knows, they're not sufficient. Nor is objectivity the key, or what passes for objectivity in journalism these days. As Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach explain in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism, the key element is verification. Lamenting the loss of the original meaning of "objectivity" in journalism, the duo writes: