The Dangerous Future of Journalism in America

What Do Helen Thomas and CNN’s Octavia Nasr Have in Common? Both are victims of a dangerous trend.

Journalists and investigative reporters have been a large and compelling part of American history for decades, if not centuries.  If it were not for the determination and workhorse mentality of many reporters, some of the U.S. Governments most ardent abuses would have remained in the shadows.  President Richard Nixon may have ended his tenure on a positive note, the Iran-contra scheme may have continued without any public rebuke, and the justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq would have perhaps been far less consequential than it has been in the past few years.  Or, put another way, some of the events that have added to the character of the United States may have been otherwise scrapped from the landscape if good reporters were not around.

So perhaps this is why the ouster of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr is so shocking to so many people in the field of journalism.  Not only have two long careers been stained by a seemingly miniscule event, but the termination of both could start a disturbing precedent for the future of reporting; political sensitivity is slowly but surely trumpeting what journalism is all about.

After a lengthy 50-year career that was composed of grilling presidents about war, the economy, and U.S. foreign policy, Washington press-corps member Helen Thomas decided to call it quits after she gave some questionable comments during an interview.  When asked whether she had any comments about Israel, she responded by saying, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine….  Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.”  Asked where exactly the Jews should go, she answered bluntly:  “They’d go home…. Poland, Germany…and America, and everywhere else.”

The comments were caught by the reporter’s camera, which was rolling during the entire interview, and were subsequently released to the world through YouTube, with tens of thousands of people responding.

As analysts or concerned citizens, we could sit here today in the hopes of hashing out where Ms. Thomas is coming from.  But in many ways, this is but a trivial concern to a larger and much more significant point.  Rather, the main issue here is how a quick 20-second interview can sour a 50-year old career in political journalism; or, perhaps more distressing, how a few controversial remarks can poison a person’s reputation as a tough and independent-minded interviewer.

The United States is often described in the history books as a nation that accepts and nourishes arguments that are different, unique, and controversial.  Yet, it appears that this same country has drifted away from that historical creed.  Now, in the 21st century, the U.S. is an uptight and hypersensitive nation that chastises any comment detached from official U.S. policy.  Unfortunately, without the existence of these same controversial arguments, some of the most important topics in American grand strategy—whether related to the economy, social services, the military, or foreign policy—will continue to linger in an unhelpful conventionality.  This is certainly not what the Founding Fathers hoped for, nor what Americans should hope for today.

Part of this controversy could perhaps be alleviated if this was an isolated incident.  But unfortunately, such a belief is mired in fantasy.  Although journalists in the United States have always been criticized and/or punished for speaking contrary to the company line (Dan Rather for instance), it seems to this onlooker that the criticism has been more frequent and the punishment more rash than in the past few decades.

Helen Thomas is hardly alone.  Just this week, a senior editor at the media giant CNN was fired for a 140-character message on Twitter expressing her sadness over the death of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.  Fadlallah, who was Lebanon’s most revered Shia cleric and on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Sepcially Designated Nationals list, was widely believed to be the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah movement.  Granted, Fadlallah did contribute to the mindset of Islamic extremism by supporting jihad during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and America’s subsequent intervention in the country.

But the man was also temperate on a number of other issues important to the Islamic community, as David Kenner so astutely wrote.  He broke with the Islamic Republic of Iran when it came to gender relations, arguing that women were just as capable as men in leading sermons.  He was openly critical of Hezbollah at times, denounced the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and even established schools across the Middle East for students who would otherwise be left uneducated.

None of this is to pay homage to a man who is still widely accused in the U.S. as a facilitator to the 1983 Lebanon marine barracks bombing that killed over 240 American soldiers (although whether he actually had any connection to the attack is still in dispute).  Rather, it is to demonstrate how some people are quick to view the world through a black-and-white prism rather than for what it really is; a gray area with complex problems and creative ways of addressing them.  Journalists are, and have always been, tasked with sparking this creativity.

Helen Thomas’ remarks towards Israel were disturbing to many.  Likewise, Ms. Nasr’s tweet could be seen as repugnant by some quarters.  But do these minor incidents—a 20 second video statement and an informal social networking message—constitute fireable offenses after long and distinguishing careers in journalism?

Evidently they do.  Sometimes, you would think that these journalists worked in Iran or Egypt instead of the United States.

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Daniel R. DePetris is a graduate candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. His article, "A New Diplomatic Relationship," was recently published by the Northwestern Journal of International Affairs. He concentrates on terrorism and international security issues. 

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  • Sami Slim

    In reality these events related to journalism and other events in france (RFI) are related to Israel. Freedom is absolute in USA and in the west except when it comes – not human rights – but to Israel.
    When it comes to Israel one needs to feel under investigation court, if you comment on one of Israel enemies you cannot be nice if not u will pay the price. But if u criticize the French gov or express that deutch of Poland shal return to germany it is no crime. Only when it comes to Israel.

  • Sami, I take your point. The direct influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States- as well as the Congress’ dependence on the lobby for campaign contributions and political support- is certainly part of the equation here. But I’m not exactly sure that you can blame Israel entirely on Thomas’ and Nasr’s firings. Don’t get me wrong…reporters of any affiliation usually receive a lot of grief from their superiors if they question Israeli policies. But the Thomas and Nasr affair may have more to do with the politicization and sensitivity of American society as a whole, rather than some sort of secret Israeli conspiracy.

    American history has shown quite consistently that the mainstream is more than hesitant- if not afraid- to talk about issues that are controversial. Topics that strike a nerve or stimulate anger within some segments of the population are usually kicked down the road for a later generation. Back in the 19th century, the hot topic was slavery…it took powerful leaders willing to risk their reputations to finally move this issue to the forefront. In the 20th century, the issue was civil-rights and whether African Americans were entitled to the same level of equality that whites often took for granted. Israel may very well be the hot topic of this century, or at least this decade.

    Unfortunately, the issues that people stray away from are the same issues that we should be discussing. Whether your a staunch supporter of Israel or a skeptic, both camps recognize that current circumstances in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not sustainable. If the status-quo continues, Israel will either lose its Jewish identity (the Palestinian population is growing rapidly compared to the Jewish population) or will be forced to strip its democratic credentials in order to maintain power. The only problem is that the U.S. seems captive to a P.C. mentality that limits what people can say, for fear of repercussions later.

    The Thomas and Nasr affair is just a confirmation of this trend.

  • Silvia ist da