At CNN, you can be a plagiarist. You can be a bug-eyed warmonger. But you can't sympathize with refugees.
After Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple tattled on her, CNN reporter Elise Labott learned this lesson the hard way, getting suspended for two weeks for the following tweet:
Everyone, It was wrong of me to editorialize. My tweet was inappropriate and disrespectful. I sincerely apologize.
— Elise Labott (@eliselabottcnn) November 20, 2015
This is crazy. By suspending Labott, CNN is actively stoking what has become a hysterical anti-Muslim political frenzy.
First of all, as I wrote with respect to BuzzFeed's garbled ethics guide, the very idea of "objective" journalism is preposterous. It is impossible for any story beyond a recitation of disordered sensory data to avoid slanting in one direction or another. Whether it's through word selection, how the news frame is presented, or even simple subject choice, journalists constantly take political sides.
Conservatives like Tim Carney argue that this manifests itself in generally left-leaning coverage of everything. But while that argument might have some truth when it comes to social issues with strong majority support (such as gay marriage), the Labott affair shows that is far from the whole story.
Wemple justified Labott's suspension with reference to a supposed CNN standard that reporters are not supposed to be "predictably partisan." This is an utter crock. CNN reporters and anchors constantly express partisan views on all sorts of questions, and often in an extremely predictable way. I have personally been the token anti-war lefty on a couple CNN segments about ISIS. The atmosphere of aggressive militarism was suffocating.
My experience is not remotely out of the ordinary. Glenn Greenwald has drawn up an extensive list of partisan opinions that caused no suspensions. There's Jim Acosta asking at an Obama press conference on ISIS "why can't we take out these bastards?" There's Christiane Amanpour doing much the same thing, Don Lemon repeatedly generalizing about Muslim countries being extremist, or implying all Muslims are responsible for 9/11, Erin Burnett stumping for war with Iran, and on and on.
Most recently, in an almost unbelievably bigoted piece of television last week, CNN anchors John Vause and Isha Sesay pressed a French Muslim activist for six straight minutes about how the "Muslim community" needs to "take responsibility" for the Paris attacks. Directed at any other religious or racial group, such commentary would be absolutely out of bounds — indeed, it's a classic anti-Semitic trope, like a "new shoot of poison vine growing up an ancient trellis."
But when it comes to Muslims, flagrant, predictably partisan bigotry is just fine and dandy to broadcast on CNN.
It's when that general attitude is combined with the Labott affair that CNN moves from hypocrisy to actual danger. By professionally sanctioning a reporter for pro-refugee opinions but giving free rein to the likes of Lemon, Vause, and Sesay, CNN is mainstreaming anti-Muslim bigotry. It is saying that rank prejudice against Islam is a subject worthy of serious consideration, while humanitarian sentiments in favor of Muslim refugees is a deviant view that must be punished out of journalism.
During the run-up to the Iraq War, the behavior of the mainstream American press was despicable and cowardly. Instead of performing their supposed duty of questioning government arguments and assertions, they abandoned all pretense and went all out to sell the war to the public. Judith Miller was copy-pasting Bush administration emails into the front page of The New York Times, and Chris Matthews was getting Phil Donohue fired for being insufficiently pro-war.
One would think that Jeff Zucker might have learned something of a lesson from those days. But as George Carlin once said, war gets good ratings. It seems CNN cares about nothing else.