Tom Friedman stepped into a journalistic controversy in his Sunday column, "Can We Talk?" protesting CNN's firing of senior editor of Middle East affairs Octavia Nasr for posting this message on Twitter upon the death of Hezbollah founder Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah:
Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot.
According to Western intelligence, Fadlallah blessed the drivers of the vehicles behind the 1983 attacks on Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 Marines. President Clinton froze his assets in 1995 because of his suspected involvement with terrorists.
Yet Friedman was dismayed by her dismissal:
I find Nasr's firing troubling. Yes, she made a mistake. Reporters covering a beat should not be issuing condolences for any of the actors they cover. It undermines their credibility. But we also gain a great deal by having an Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-Christian female journalist covering the Middle East for CNN, and if her only sin in 20 years is a 140-character message about a complex figure like Fadlallah, she deserved some slack. She should have been suspended for a month, but not fired. It's wrong on several counts.
Friedman's omission of the killing of the Marines is especially odd considering he used the massacre to insult Ronald Reagan in an exchange with then-GOP presidential candidate Lamar Alexander in a March 5, 1995 appearance on CBS's Face the Nation.
Friedman downplayed Fadlallah's hatred of Israel, never mentioning the phrase "suicide bombers" and saying only that he "had some dark side."
I've never met Octavia Nasr or Fadlallah. Fadlallah clearly hated Israel, supported attacks on Israelis and opposed the U.S. troops in Lebanon and Iraq. But he also opposed Hezbollah's choking dogmatism and obedience to Iran; he wanted Lebanon's Shiites to be independent and modern, and he built a regional following through his social commentaries.
Of course, Fadlallah was not just a social worker. He had some dark side. People at CNN tell me Nasr knew both. But here's what I know: The Middle East has to change in order to thrive, and that change has to come from within, from change agents who are seen as legitimate and rooted in their own cultures. They may not be America's cup of tea. But we need to know about them, and understand where our interests converge - not just demonize them all.
Dan Abrams, founder of Mediaite, responded at length to Friedman in the comments section of a related Mediaite article.
....when a journalist who covers the middle east expresses admiration for the leader of a group that is at least partially a terror organization, its not just a small matter. He may have done other amazing things including being more progressive than others of his ilk, but can you imagine what would happen to an American journalist expressing admiration for an Al Quaeda leader who had other, better, attributes? When you work at a media entity like CNN (or the New York Times) and you don't get that words matter - all of them - then that in and of itself, should be a fireable offense.
One would think, from the wailing of Friedman and Nasr's other apologists, that Fadlallah was defined by his support of women's rights. But the Times' July 5 obituary for Fadlallah, which appeared before the Nasr controversy broke, devoted a single paragraph to his "comparatively progressive positions on women's rights and family law," while emphasizing his justification for suicide bombings and hatred for Israel. "Comparatively" is the operative word, as the opinions of this Alan Alda of the Middle East aren't exactly bold by civilized standards: "...he argued that women had the right to defend themselves from domestic violence."
Friedman's interest in Fadlallah's feminism is pretty new. His only previous mention of Fadlallah, according to a Nexis search, was a single citation in the last paragraph of a 1984 news story, back when Friedman was a New York Times reporter.