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Lessons Learned From a Career Tweeted Away

It may be hard to believe in our current overheated cable news climate, but in the days and months after Sept. 11 — and in the weeks following the 2003 invasion of Iraq — CNN was actually doing its best to provide in-depth reporting and analysis of the Middle East. CNN International’s Octavia Nasr was a key player for the network during that time. I know this for a fact because as an anchor for CNN Headline News, and fill-in anchor for CNN, I shared the set with her on several occasions, seeking her input on how America and the West were being covered by Middle East-based media outlets such as Al-Jazeera.

Her reporting was thoughtful and low-key — exactly what was needed at the time. Yet now she and a 20-year career are history at Atlanta’s CNN Center, done in by her own words — or rather, her own typing via Twitter — and the extreme emotions that followed.

“Sad to hear the passing Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah..One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot,” Nasr tweeted on Sunday, July 4. Nasr was referring to the death of a leading figure in a group that’s labeled as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and her words were seen as evidence of a supposedly objective journalist taking a side in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

After being called to the woodshed by CNN executives, Nasr quickly posted a follow-up tweet: “Regret tweet about Fadlallah death bc I didn’t explain specific respect for standing up for Muslim women.” The link is to a post by Nasr on CNN’s “This Just In” blog in which she goes into greater detail about why she wrote what she wrote.

Try Context

I would encourage you to read the blog post. You’ll learn that Nasr lost family members in the deadly 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. You’ll learn that she had a chance to interview Fadlallah in 1990 and asked questions that revealed some semi-moderate stances from the cleric. You’ll learn that she didn’t condone any of the inflammatory things he said regarding the U.S., the West, Israel or the Holocaust, or any of the bloody deeds for which Hezbollah is held responsible.

In short, you’ll get a lot of context and meaning, but it won’t do any good. By the time she wrote the post, the damage was done, and soon CNN announced that Nasr was leaving the company and would no longer be its editor for Middle East news.

Lest anyone think Nasr is some kind of Hezbollah sympathizer or spy, or simply anti-American, some of her earlier tweets on July 4 could have been posted by someone getting ready to join the parades, barbecues and fireworks in Middle America, much less the Middle East: “Good Morning & Happy 4th of July to my fellow Americans wherever you are in the world!! Happy #4th #USA;” “Good Morning #USA United States Happy 4th.. My first outside of the US in 20 years!! I miss you, I love you and wish you safe celebrations!!”

Nasr was indeed traveling on July 4 in her homeland of Lebanon, sending Twitpics aplenty and using Foursquare to check-in from various destinations in Beirut. That raises the question: How can a journalist savvy enough to grasp the utility of smartphone camera technology and location-based services fail so miserably at real-time communications?

To steal some of Nasr’s own language: I respect her a lot, and I believe her network pulled the trigger on her too quickly. CNN in its current weakened state can ill afford to lose another experienced, valuable journalist who can speak Arabic and help guide American viewers through the culture and politics of a vital part of the world. But it’s also clear Nasr didn’t remember something taught in Intro to Broadcast News 1301: Read aloud what you’ve just written, then read it again.

The Mic’s Always Hot

Twitter provides a handy platform for transmission of breaking news. Too bad it also doesn’t come with its own version of The Row, the desks of editors that sits in the middle of CNN’s newsroom in Atlanta, parsing and vetting all the copy that goes out on most of the company’s networks. There’s no app for that at present, and Nasr obviously should have known that. Yet she tweeted away her thoughts, and tweeted away her career at CNN.

So Nasr, I’m very sorry to say, wins this month’s Helen Thomas New Media Fumble Award — another traditional, successful journalist who was tripped up by a camera that’s always running, a microphone that’s always hot and open and a social media platform that makes communicating way too easy.

Thomas may not have cared if someone with a smartphone camera or a Flipcam was using it when she ended her distinguished career earlier this year with intemperate comments about the Israelis, but I’m guessing she has at least a modicum of respect now for the viral nature of the new media world and how quickly it can take someone down.

The Nasr episode has unleashed yet another round of blog posts, Twiter links and traditional media musings about whether journalists can be truly objective or should even try to hide their opinions. I doubt that a new model of digital journalism will arise based on what happened to a very good journalist whom I had the pleasure of working with for a brief time. But I do know that Nasr’s departure will have been in vain if all old-media newsies don’t find some kind of teachable moment in what Nasr herself said was a failed attempt at commentary in 140 characters.

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.

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