CNN caves in

CNN has fired senior editor Octavia Nasr for tweeting that she was "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." Fadlallah was one of the spiritual leaders of Hezbollah, and regarded by the U.S. government as a terrorist. Nasr subsequently clarified that she was referring to Fadlallah's "pioneering" positions on womens' rights (among other things, he issued fatwas condemning honor killings and affirming the right of women to protect themselves from domestic abuse), and she expressed regret for trying to address a complex issue like this in a brief tweet. But in a gutless decision that brings it no credit, CNN has shown her the door.

Needless to say, the double-standard here is both remarkable and distressing. As Juan Cole noted this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki openly praised Fadlallah after the latter's death, and in terms far more lavish than Ms. Nasr used. Al-Maliki is the democratically-elected leader of Iraq and supposedly a U.S. ally; does his praise for Fadlallah mean that we shouldn't say anything positive about him either?  

More importantly, plenty of American journalists and politicians have shown "respect" (and in some cases, fawning admiration) for various world figures with hands far bloodier than Ayatollah Fadlallah -- including Mao Zedong, Ariel Sharon, the Shah of Iran, or even Kim il Sung -- but it didn't cost them their jobs. And let's not forget that plenty of American journalists treat our own leaders with plenty of deference and "respect," even after the latter have launched unnecessary wars in which tens of thousands have died or authorized the torture of detainees. And as Josh Marshall notes over at TPM, getting fired after a successful twenty-year career over a 140-character tweet "just doesn't seem right."

This incident is also distressing because CNN was essentially caving into a black/white, us vs. them, good vs. absolute evil view of the world. Because the United States had labeled Fadlallah a "terrorist," expressing any sort of positive comment about him was a firing offense. But the real world is more complicated than that: people who support some good things sometimes embrace bad things too, and we ought to be able to acknowledge and "respect" them for their positive actions while recognizing and condemning their errors or flaws. Nasr is correct to have expressed regret for having tweeted on a subject that requires more nuance, but her firing will only reinforce the simplistic stereotypes that already prevail in mainstream political commentary. (For a more nuanced appreciation of Fadlallah's positive and negative contributions, go here.)

Mind you, I'm not defending Fadlallah's views on terrorism or Nasr's ill-advised tweet. But CNN's spineless response to this incident strikes me as one more reason why mainstream journalism is increasingly seen as morally bankrupt and why the blogosphere is slowly taking over.  

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Stephen M. Walt

What's in a name?

The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He's also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.  

In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:

You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "

He then proceeds to trace how the same combat-induced condition once known as "shell shock" (two syllables, clear and evocative), gradually evolved into "battle fatigue" (four syllables), then "operational exhaustion" (eight syllables) and then into today's "post-traumatic stress disorder." (eight syllables plus a hyphen!). And in the process, its nature is concealed and its impact is quietly diluted.

The spirit of Carlin is probably smiling ruefully right now, because this tendency appears to be alive and well. According to the Associated Press, the Army has now dropped the term "psychological operations" (nine syllables, unless you use the two-syllable label "psy-ops").

The new term is -- are you ready? -- "military information support operations" (a whopping fourteen syllables).  Both the old term and the new one are euphemisms, but the latter is precisely the sort of bland and neutral phrase intended to conceal what is really going on.  

You know, just like saying "enhanced interrogation" (seven highly misleading syllables), instead of "torture" (just two syllables; clear, on point, and illegal).

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