CNN yesterday suspended its global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, for two weeks for the crime of posting a tweet critical of the House vote to ban Syrian refugees. Whether by compulsion or choice, she then groveled in apology. This is the original tweet along with her subsequent expression of repentance:
Everyone, It was wrong of me to editorialize. My tweet was inappropriate and disrespectful. I sincerely apologize.
— Elise Labott (@EliseLabott) November 20, 2015
This all happened after the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple complained that her original tweet showed “bias.” The claim that CNN journalists must be “objective” and are not permitted to express opinions is an absolute joke. CNN journalists constantly express opinions without being sanctioned.
Labott’s crime wasn’t that she expressed an opinion. It’s that she expressed the wrong opinion: After Paris, defending Muslims, even refugees, is strictly forbidden. I’ve spoken with friends who work at every cable network and they say the post-Paris climate is indescribably repressive in terms of what they can say and who they can put on air. When it comes to the Paris attacks, CNN has basically become state TV (to see just how subservient CNN is about everything relating to terrorism, watch this unbelievable “interview” of ex-CIA chief Jim Woolsey by CNN’s Brooke Baldwin; or consider that neither CNN nor MSNBC has put a single person on air to dispute the CIA’s blatant falsehoods about Paris despite how many journalists have documented those falsehoods).
Labott’s punishment comes just five days after two CNN anchors spent six straight minutes lecturing French Muslim civil rights activist Yasser Louati that he and all other French Muslims bear “responsibility” for the attack (the anchors weren’t suspended for expressing those repulsive opinions). The suspension comes just four days after CNN’s Jim Acosta stood up in an Obama press conference and demanded: “I think a lot of Americans have this frustration that they see that the United States has the greatest military in the world. … I guess the question is — and if you’ll forgive the language — is why can’t we take out these bastards?” (He wasn’t suspended.) It comes five days after CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour mauled Obama on-air for not being more militaristic about ISIS (she wasn’t suspended); throughout 2013, Amanpour vehemently argued all over CNN for U.S. intervention in Syria (she wasn’t suspended).
Labott’s suspension also comes less than a year after Don Lemon demanded that Muslim human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar state whether he supports ISIS (he wasn’t suspended); in 2010, Lemon strongly insinuated that all Muslims were responsible for the 9/11 attack when he defended opposition to an Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan (he wasn’t suspended). During the Occupy Wall Street protests, CNN host Erin Burnett continuously mocked the protesters while defending Wall Street (she wasn’t suspended) and also engaged in rank fearmongering over Iran (she wasn’t suspended). I could literally spend the rest of the day pointing to opinions expressed by CNN journalists for which they were not suspended or punished in any way.
By very stark contrast, career CNN producer Octavia Nasr was instantly fired in 2010 after 20 years with the network for the crime of tweeting a positive sentiment for a beloved Shiite imam who had just died, after neocons complained that he was a Hezbollah sympathizer. Earlier this year, Jim Clancy was forced to “resign” after 30 years with CNN for tweeting inflammatory criticisms of Israel. As I’ve pointed out over and over, “journalistic objectivity” is a sham for so many reasons, beginning with the fact that all reporting is suffused with subjective perspectives. “Objectivity” does not ban opinions; it just bans opinions that are particularly disfavored among those who wield the greatest power (obviously, no CNN journalist would be punished for advocating military action against ISIS, for instance).
But there’s a more important point here than CNN’s transparently farcical notion of “objectivity.” In the wake of Paris, an already ugly and quite dangerous anti-Muslim climate has exploded. The leading GOP presidential candidate is speaking openly of forcing Muslims to register in databases, closing mosques, and requiring Muslims to carry special ID cards. Another candidate, Rand Paul, just introduced a bill to ban refugees almost exclusively from predominantly Muslim and/or Arab countries. Others are advocating exclusion of Muslim refugees (Cruz) and religious tests to allow in only “proven Christians” (Bush).
That, by any measure, is a crisis of authoritarianism. And journalists have historically not only been permitted, but required, to raise their voice against such dangers. Indeed, that is one of the primary roles of journalism: to serve as a check on extremism when stoked by political demagogues.
The two most respected American television journalists in the history of the medium are almost certainly Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The legacies of both were shaped by their raising their voices in times of creeping radicalism and government overreach. Murrow repeatedly inveighed against the extremism of Congressional McCarthyism, while Cronkite disputed Pentagon claims that victory in the Vietnam War was near and instead called for its end: “The only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” Neither could survive at the climate created at CNN:
As Murrow said in justifying his opposition to the Wisconsin Senator and his allies: “There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his [sic] responsibilities.”
It’s not hard to envision the impact that this CNN action will have on the next journalist who considers speaking up the way Labott (very mildly) just did: They know doing so could imperil their career. In the face of the kind of emerging extremism now manifest in the U.S. (and Europe), that journalistic climate neuters journalists, renders them impotent and their function largely irrelevant, and — by design or otherwise — obliterates a vital check on tyrannical impulses. But that’s what happens when media outlets are viewed principally as corporate assets rather than journalistic ones: Their overriding goal is to avoid saying or doing anything that will create conflict between them and those who wield the greatest power.
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I did two interviews yesterday where I was able more or less comprehensively to set forth my views on the behavior of the U.S. media following Paris, which I must admit — notwithstanding my very low expectations — has surprised (and horrified) me in terms of how subservient it is. First, there was this interview on Democracy Now (starting at 13:00; relevant segments are here and here), which generated more response than any I’ve ever done on that show, and this shorter one on France24.