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:
When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary. The term began to appear as part of journalism early in the last century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and culture biases would not undermine their work.
The journalistic method was the thing that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist, a method that depended on verification of results and findings. Rosenstiel and Kovach complain about how the old journalism of verification has been "overrun" by the new journalism of assertion that we consume on TV and radio. They also bellyache about the neutral voice adopted by unscrupulous journalists who want to appear objective when they're completely in the tank for somebody. This, they write, is a "form of deception." In my book, this kind of deception—and not shooting off your mouth—should be a firing offense.
Which brings us back to Weigel and Nasr. To the best of my knowledge, neither journalist has been criticized for producing substandard or otherwise shoddy work for their network or newspaper. Both appear to be committed to the journalism of verification, although I'm more confident about vouching for Weigel's work, which I know well, than Nasr's, which I don't. Weigel's jerkiness on a private listserv doesn't bother me much at all. If you were to purge the Post newsroom of every reporter who had been a jerk sometime in his career, you'd be facing an acre of empty desks. In fact, jerkiness was one of the attributes that I used to look for in a candidate when I was on the management side of the editorial divide.
That Weigel's bad manners bothered his Post bosses so much that they felt compelled to accept his resignation speaks poorly for the paper. That CNN walked Nasr off the plank because she expressed a smidgeon of "respect" for a Hezbollah-supporting cleric in a tweet speaks of cowardice.
The work is the thing. Until somebody can show me shoddy journalism by Weigel and Nasr, I'll defend them. Nobody should be sacked to pacify the nitpickers.
While we're on the subject of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, see this nuanced piece about him in Foreign Policy by David Kenner, who writes what I believe Nasr was thinking. And while we're on the subject of sacking people who speak their minds, let's revisit the Helen Thomas affair. Nobody who read my 2003 piece about her should have been surprised by her comments about Jews and Israel. Should she have been shown the door? Seeing as her views couldn't have been a surprise to her employers at the Hearst News Service, I'd say "nah" because the work is the thing. Should I be fired for my impudence? Of course. Send letters of recommendation that I can use in future job applications to firstname.lastname@example.org. Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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