We’ve been pondering CNN’s curious relationship to autocrats around the world. As we’ve seen, the network routinely soft-pedals the perfidies of various countries’ governments in order to keep its reporters from being expelled. In some cases, to be sure, the tendency to whitewash tyranny isn’t just strategic but ideological – for many CNN people, as it happens, actively sympathize with leftist despots.
Then again, sometimes a CNN hireling will go too far in expressing that sympathy. In 2010, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died. Known as the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah and designated a terrorist by President Clinton, Fadlallah advocated the destruction of Israel, cheered on suicide bombers, engaged in Holocaust denial, called for the murder of Jews, applauded the 2008 Mercaz HaRav massacre (in which eight students were killed), celebrated the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing (in which 299 died), approved of the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and personally had the blood of no fewer than 260 Americans on his hands.
Among those who mourned Fadlallah’s death was Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, who remembered him as having been “loyal to the path of the Islamic Revolution” and as having “proved this through words and actions throughout the Islamic Republic’s thirty years.” Fadlallah was likewise eulogized by none other than Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior Middle East editor. On learning of his demise, Nasr tweeted as follows from her official CNN Twitter account: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”
Nasr received widespread criticism. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach marveled that for people like Nasr, “an imam like Fadlallah who wants to kill Americans and Israelis but who is unexpectedly nice to women has taken a giant leap forward from the Dark Ages, deserving respect and praise.” Nasr soon removed her tweet and, on a CNN blog, expressed regret for it, saying that the harsh public reaction had taught her “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.”
This was, note well, not exactly an apology. Nasr went on to describe the tweet as “simplistic” and explained that her “respect” for Fadlallah was based on his “contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights.” Of course, all things are relative; when Nasr spoke of support for women’s rights, she meant that Fadlallah was not a fan of honor killings. In any event, Nasr soon discovered that even by the lax standards of CNN, she had gone too far: her publicly declared “respect” for a mass murderer resulted in her dismissal from the network. It may well be that CNN’s readiness to fire her had less to do with any discomfort over her praise for Fadlallah than with its concern about losing access in Israel.