Editor’s note: This article appears in the August 2010 print edition of Free Press Houston in a slightly altered form. While the print version was edited for space the edits may have misled or confused some readers, so an expanded edition is being posted here.
By Alex Wukman
In silenced horror I have watched as the media, bent to partisan rhetoric, cannibalized itself. Unable to speak out, while ideological purges began, for fear of losing the security of a steady paycheck and full medical, dental and vision. In the last few weeks two journalists, Dave Weigel and Octavia Nasr, were terminated in a very high profile way for expressing their opinion.
The termination of these two reporters came because their employers, the Washington Post for Weigel and CNN for Nasr, felt that their credibility had become ‘compromised.’ To offer a bit of a refresher, Weigel, a libertarian blogger hired by the Post to cover the right wing, made disparaging comments on, what he thought was, a private off-the-record list serve about such conservative heavyweights as Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich and Matt Drudge.
Those comments, taken out of context and edited to paint him in the most unflattering light, were first published by the Media Bistro blog FishbowlDC and then picked up by Tucker Carlson’s the Daily Caller website. Rather than a warning or a suspension, Weigel’s comments cost him his position with the Post. In a statement about Weigel’s resignation the Post’s executive editor said that the paper “can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work.”
Nasr, an Arabic speaking Lebanese Christian who had worked at CNN for 20 years most recently as their Senior Editor for Mideast Affairs, was fired over one tweet. On July 4 Nasr tweeted about the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a man who was described as “the spiritual leader of Hezbollah.” Nasr stated that she was sad to hear about the passing of Fadlallah and described him as “one of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”
Nasr later stated that when she said she respected Fadlallah she was not referring to his support for attacks on Israel or America. Instead she was referring to his stance on women’s rights. In a July 6 blog post Nasr stated that Fadlallah “called for the abolition of the tribal system of ‘honor killing.’ She also described how he called the practice “primitive and non-productive” and “warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.”
Nasr went on to state that commenting on someone as complex as Fadlallah, a man designated as a terrorist by the US and EU yet, as Shiite Lebanese journalist Hannin Ghaddar stated, “could change the status quo,” was “not the kind of life to be commenting about in a brief tweet.”
Both Weigel and Nasr made mistakes, both were terminated. And yet it is in their terminations that the true horror begins to emerge. Since the termination of Weigel and Nasr media pundits from Thomas Friedman to David Frum have been weighing in about whether either, or both, should have been allowed to retain their jobs. To their credit, some of the pundits and commentators are seeing this as the beginning of something far more sinister than simply the termination of two, relatively unknown, journalists.
Some, like Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic, framed Weigel’s termination as an “old-media versus new media” scenario. Ambinder stated that Weigel was forced to resign because of an old-media “non-ideological standard that just doesn’t exist.” To some degree Ambinder is right. If Weigel had been working for a “new media” source like Firedoglake, the Daily Beast or even the Huffington Post his comments would not have created nearly the firestorm they did, in fact they may have gotten him a job at CNN.
When Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement in April 2009 conservative blogger, Macon, Georgia City Councilman and soon-to-be CNN political analyst Eric Erickson tweeted that the nation was losing “the only goat fucking child molester ever to serve on the Supreme Court.” Erickson was hired by CNN almost a year later.
When, two weeks after being hired by CNN, he tweeted that he would “pull out his wife’s shotgun” if a census worker came to his door and “see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door” no one called for Erickson’s resignation. No one said that he had “compromised his credibility” and no one hinted that he had compromised CNN’s credibility.
In a July 24 op-ed piece Kathleen Parker, Weigel’s colleague at the Post, extrapolated on the Weigel termination and turned it into a picture of almost Orwellian proportion by asking “Are we better off never having the ability to speak off-handedly among friends, to say in private what we could never say in public, to think aloud and uncensored?”
She continued on, citing a scenario straight out of every totalitarian state from the last century, “do we resign ourselves to the new reality—that no one is ever to be trusted—and keep our thoughts to ourselves?”
When Jack Schaeffer, editor at large for Slate, addressed the controversy surrounding the termination of Nasr and Weigel he opened his column by stating something that had been rattling around in the head of many journalists. “Speak your mind, lose your job is the lesson I’m taking away,” wrote Schaeffer. While he may have been slightly melodramatic in his phrasing, Schaeffer was not the only one who was worrying about the lesson that the terminations of Nasr and Weigel are teaching to upcoming journalists.
Friedman asked “what lesson are we sending to young people?” To answer his own question he wrote “Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another.” Before finishing his lament Friedman stated that the lesson about the firing of Nasr and Weigel is, sadly, that if a young person wants to hold a position of influence they shouldn’t “take any intellectual chances that might offend someone.”
However, Friedman was, characteristically, overly optimistic in his assessment. It is less about the chances a young journalist took as opposed to where he or she took them. William Arkin, a blogger who worked on the Washington Post’s recent series Top Secret America, was described by David Mark in a moderated chat on the Politico website as having done “stints at Greenpeace International and Human Rights Watch – activist associations that might not pass the classic standard of journalistic objectivity.”
This led to some discussion among the chat participants. Greg Dworkin, contributing editor for Daily Kos, wondered if every journalists’ objectivity was to be called in to question for once working somewhere that “wasn’t a dying newspaper and doesn’t pass conservative muster.”
Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund, an educational nonprofit that works in the Occupied Territories and refugee camps, asked “since when do we use the same terminology to talk about working for progressive organizations as we do for doing time at county penitentiaries?”
Even though, as Sherrilyn Ifill, a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, pointed out in the same thread, there is nothing in Arkin’s background that “suggests that he would bend the truth to reach a pre-ordained conclusion,” the times have changed.
Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz described the current state of journalism as “blood sport, performed for the masses.” In an environment consumed by partisanship unless a journalist has spent his or her entire career working at conservative approved old-media outlets everything he or she writes, tweets, posts or even says becomes suspect. And as Andrew Breitbart famously proved in the Shirley Sherrod debacle, even suspicion is enough to destroy a career.
It is the suspicion, and the media’s fear of suspicion, which frightens me, the most. To provide a little information about myself, despite living inside the loop I have spent the last two-and-one-half years working as a reporter in an extremely conservative part of rural East Texas. It is a place where people routinely hold purification ceremonies for towns that allow the sale of liquor and every city council and school board meeting, as well as high school graduation, football and baseball game, begins with a prayer that ends “in Jesus’ name.” And no one thinks a thing about it.
I have had people follow me for 60 miles across three counties because I asked questions suggesting that a middle school student may have been bullied to the point of suicide. I have been insulted because I, as a man, had hair that went below my collar. High school students have tried to pick fights with me because I drive a yellow car. I’ve had to remain in the closet, because even though I’m in a relationship with a woman I’m bisexual and the few LGBT residents of the area I met warned me of possible violent retaliation if my “deviant sexuality” were to become common knowledge.
I’ve been at school board meetings where, after two years of covering the district, all 30 people attending the meeting stood in the back of the room rather than sit next to me, simply because I’m “an outsider.” I have watched Congressmen listen to Birther and Tea Party conspiracy theories and not dispute the false assumption that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen. I have been instructed not to comment on the obviously false beliefs, wrong statements and dangerous policy decisions made by local, state and national elected officials because it could be perceived as showing a bias.
But it’s not the community’s attitude towards me that’s frightening, it’s what would happen if someone started digging around on the internet. I have already given up social media after someone in my coverage area dug through the approximately 750 friends I had acquired over six years on MySpace and e-mailed me with accusations of ‘guilt by association.’ As difficult as minimizing my online presence was to consider, it was rather easy to accomplish.
What isn’t so easy to accomplish is erasing all traits of the idealism I had in my early 20’s. I worry that some of the things I did, said and signed will come back to haunt me. Whether it’s an article I wrote for Free Press Houston half-a-dozen years ago poking fun at the circus that is an NRA convention or a petition I signed supporting the addition of Ralph Nader to the Texas presidential ballot, I now have learned to live in fear of Digital McCarthyism.
I worry that someday soon anonymous commentators on an out-of-the-way conservative blog may begin a series of accusations that, in all actuality, are nothing more than variations on “Are you now, or have you ever been, a liberal or a progressive?”
As Friedman memorably stated in his op-ed on the firing of Nasr, in the age of Google, when everything is archived, “the future belongs to those who have no footprints.” However, even that’s not a guarantee.
Alex Wukman is a Houston based poet, playwright, author and journalist. He was formerly the Local Editor for Free Press Houston before going to work for corporate newspapers. He can be reached by e-mailing alexwukman at gmail dot com.