Juan Cole’s Confusion

Juan Cole’s Informed Comment may offer comments that are informed, but they aren’t necessarily well thought out. Cole, of course, criticizes CNN’s firing of Octavia Nasr for her sympathetic Twitter praise of Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.

So help me understand this. Nuri al-Maliki, still the Iraqi prime minister for the moment, expressed his appreciation for the accomplishments of the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah.

Then we get Maliki’s kind words for Fadlallah. This is confusing to Cole because

The new Iraqi politics, which threw up and ensconced al-Maliki is fulsomely praised by the American right wing

which is, as Cole would reflexively frame the issue, the source of complaint with Nasr.

The whole conundrum only makes sense from an Israel Lobby point of view.

To recap, the Right praises Maliki, who speaks well of Fadlallah, so how can the Right criticize Nasr – indeed, wish her out of a job – for offering words of less fulsome praise than Mailki’s? Only the Israel lobby can make sense of it.

Let’s see if we can help the poor confused Cole comment more sensibly as well as informatively.

What if one is not on the Right? What if one does not praise Maliki (while considering him, certainly, superior to Saddam Hussein)? What if one still thinks Masr needed to be relieved of her position? Where does one stand, then, in regard to Cole’s argument? Hmn.

What Cole does is poison the well by associating criticism of Nasr with the Right wing and the “Israel lobby.” Additionally, he sets up a straw man against which to argue by asking a loaded question: how can one criticize Masr AND praise Maliki, when they both praised Fadlallah?

Cole’s argument is already undercut if a proponent of dismissing Nasr is not on the Right or not part of the Israel lobby – unless, of course, Cole wishes to declare that that critics of Nasr are by that very fact on the Right and part of the Israel lobby, much in the way Cole’s sympathizer Glenn Greenwald terms anyone who criticizes him on Israel or terrorism a “neocon.” Though, even then, the validity of any argument is independent of what side of what floor any one stands on. The truth is that Cole never actually presents the actual argument against Nasr.

What is the actual argument? The time-honored professional ideals among journalists are objectivity and balance, which are not identical. Reporters are human, so they will naturally have opinions of their own, and biases. A practiced professionalism will seek to minimize the influence of the two, with varying degrees of success. Regardless, certainly some journalists will be liberals and some conservatives. Some will read The Nation and Mother Jones; others will read The Weekly Standard and the National Review. What will, or should, tell professionally is how much these personal inclinations are adequately walled off from the attempt to report objective accounts of events and circumstances.

However, here is where balance separates from objectivity. Objectivity does not entail making no judgments, in the manner of seeking a thoughtless balance. Objectively, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were mass murderers, conquerors of nations, and destroyers of cultures. To seek to balance their rationalizations of their behaviors with the philosophies and principles of the nations that opposed them would be to subvert objectivity in the name of a mistaken synonym for it. To seek objectivity is not to abandon judgment; it is to employ a high order of judgment.

So, laments Cole,

No figure in US media is allowed to show any understanding of or appreciation for any aspect of the life and works of someone the Lobbies have decided must be demonized and vilified….

Note, first, that Cole has shifted from defending Nasr to defending Fadlallah, not a requirement of the argument. One could attempt to defend Nasr’s right to an opinion regardless of its soundness, but Cole, this move reveals, has a greater purpose: he, too, wishes to speak well of Fadlallah.

Now, it would indeed be awful if a position critical of Fadlallah were arbitrarily urged on the media, as Cole suggests – if there were no objective basis for it. Cole even concedes finally that there is some objective basis:

Fadlallah had severe flaws, including his condoning of suicide bombings against Israelis.

Cole leaves out Holocaust denial, demonization of the U.S., likely responsibility for the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, and early spiritual tutelage of Hezbollah. But even to restrict the consideration momentarily to just the condoning of suicide bombings Cole does mention, yes, we could call that – what generous words – severe flaws. Still,

he condemned the 9/11 attacks and the Morocco suicide bombings as pure terrorism, and that has to be reported, too. (It mostly wasn’t). And, he authorized Muslim women to actively defend themselves against domestic violence, which was the thing Nasr had in mind.

Generous words, generous spirit. What are campaigns of suicide bombings before the open arms of Cole’s forgiving nature? One does not usually find him so kindly in his forgiving regard of Israel. One thinks here of the words of George Orwell:

Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

No doubt, Cole will recognize this immediately as applying to the other side.

Interestingly, if one grew up in New York City during a certain age and rubbed up against the presence of the Mafia in that town, one could always hear of some soldier, capo, or Don that he loved his children, was courtly with old people, and generous to his wife and to the community. It was just that sometimes some person, for strictly business reasons, you understand – one didn’t like to have to do it – had to be killed.  But you should have seen the gift he gave me for Christmas, and he always holds the door. I’ll be sad when he dies. A lot of people had a lot of respect for him.

Beyond the expectation that a journalist be professionally trained to pursue objectivity, yet, with developed judgment, not a false balance, there should be the consequent anticipation of balanced judgment: a journalistic organization should properly question the professional abilities of reporters who attach themselves to dramatically eccentric ideas, who are birthers, let’s say, or 9/11 truthers. Journalists who are advocates for politically extreme positions need at least be scrutinized for their maintenance of professional standards. Obviously, there are publications that are openly Left or Right, and in television news this is now the norm: the consumers of news from these organs know what they are getting. CNN, however, purports to maintain traditional standards of objectivity. As with the leading daily newspapers in the nation, the expectation, if not the reality, is different.

Some politically extreme positions are and should be ethically transgressive. In the 1930s a reporter’s support of fascism should have been a disqualifier for employment by reputable news organizations. Further, what governments pursue as practical foreign policy is not analogous to the mission of news organizations. The New York Times is not the State Department. Walter Duranty was not Cordell Hull. Even in full knowledge of Soviet crimes, it would have served U.S. interests to ally with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. It served no interest of the free world or of truth for Duranty to report as a Soviet sympathizer and tool.

Beyond the specifically objectionable acts, beliefs, and statements of Fadlallah, he was an illiberal advocate of Islamic societies constituted in Sharia law, whatever differences he had with the Iranian theocracy he once supported over the desired degree of clerical governmental oversight. Consider how uncomfortable many were, who now excuse and sweeten Fadlallah’s legacy, at former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s morning Christian prayer gatherings. We do not want running the editorial desks of major news organizations individuals who believe David Koresh was an individual deserving of respect, or Timothy McVeigh, or the leaders of polygamous Mormon sects, or anti-abortion organizations that advocate violence against abortion providers, or any Catholic who might believe that our republic should constitutionally be guided by Papal decree, or, for that matter, Israeli settler leaders who dehumanize Arabs and believe they have a God-given right to the land of the West Bank.

We should want none of those among the leading producers of our purportedly objective news reporting. We should not want, either, someone who believes that Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah’s fundamental illiberal intolerance, anti-Americanism, and religious hatred were deserving of respect.



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