CNN Reporter’s Suspension for Biased Tweet Has Nothing To Do With Quashing Free Speech


Before addressing the mock tweet above, first a disclaimer:

Being a media critic is basically a cut-and-dry occupation: I see a story or situation, dig further via research, form a definitive opinion, start typing. The key words here are “definitive opinion,” because nobody comes here to witness a writer being wishy-washy. All of that said, this is where we come to the disclaimer portion of this column: what you’re about to read is absolutely nuanced and can get fuzzy at times. Just a heads up on the clear-as-mud narrative you’re about to encounter…

Which brings us back to the mock tweet above. In the world of cable news, if that sentiment was shared by an opinion host, it would receive its share of retweets, favorites, praise and criticism. But would it be considered controversial? Absolutely not.

The same can’t be said for a tweet like this below. Not because of the content, but the source:

As you may have heard lately, that tweet was sent by a hard news reporter (official title for Elise Labott: Global Affairs Correspondent). Note: those in these kind of journalism positions aren’t supposed to take sides/display any partisanship on certain issues. The reason is quite simple: if a reporter is seen as biased on a high-profile topic, he or she risks not being trusted to present any story fairly and accurately moving forward. In Elise Labott’s case, her editorializing on easily the week’s most controversial topic (whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the U.S.) quickly got lots of attention after The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple saw Labott’s tweet and rightly characterized it as an example of bias. After that, said tweet went viral, and CNN promptly suspended her for two weeks.

And that’s when a heavy dose of unintentional comedy was introduced into the mix… all in the name of “free speech”. Enter Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept and Ed Snowden fame––an advocacy journalist who fancies himself as the most important voice in media today… just ask him––who opined that “CNN Punished Its Own Journalist for Fulfilling a Core Duty of Journalism“. Per Greenwald:

Labott’s crime wasn’t that she expressed an opinion. It’s that she expressed the wrong opinion: after Paris, defending Muslims, even refugees, is strictly forbidden. I’ve spoken with friends who work at every cable network and they say the post-Paris climate is indescribably repressive in terms of what they can say and who they can put on air. When it comes to the Paris attacks, CNN has basically become state TV.

Hyperbole with the “state TV” reference? Sure. Complete BS overall? Absolutely. Because know this: if Elise Labott had sent out the kind of tweet seen at the top of this column applauding the GOP and some Democrats for supporting house legislation that could limit Syrian refugees into this country, believe me… you wouldn’t see Greenwald’s piece pontificating about the need for free expression, core duties of journalism or the fourth estate serving “as a check on extremism when stoked by political demagogues.” Again, you can argue for or against the refugee bill, but to call it extremism is overblown crap at its overblown worst, particularly when every public opinion poll conducted on the matter shows a majority Americans oppose the program as it stands today.

Per Bloomberg:

Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults in the Bloomberg survey, conducted in the days immediately following the attacks, say the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Just 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists.

Per NBC News:

The latest NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll shows that 56% of Americans disapprove of allowing more migrants fleeing violence in Syria and other nations into the country, while 41% approve and the issue divides sharply across party lines…

Per Time:

Some 54% of total respondents said they oppose taking in refugees,according to a new poll from the Washington Post and ABC News, and 52% say they’re not confident in the American screening process to weed out possible terrorists.

This isn’t cherry-picking, by the way. This is the general feeling of Americans regardless of poll or outlet (and yes, there are many more just like it, even on the state level). And there’s a reason Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill. Again, support or denounce it, but don’t call it extremism like Greenwald just did in his defense of Elise Labott.

Another prominent argument seen online and particularly on social media speaks to what some see as CNN’s hypocrisy over whom can editorialize and whom cannot within the organization. Greenwald––along with other media critics––hysterically point to Don Lemon as an example of a reporter who offers up opinions and isn’t reprimanded for doing so. Please note: Don Lemon is not a reporter the way Labott is. He’s primarily a host. So here comes the ambiguity warned about in the disclaimer earlier: in cable news, hosts walk a fine line between playing a traditional anchor role while periodically injecting opinion and showcasing a brand (via personality). I call it being a hybrid.

Examples using this definition: Megyn Kelly (Fox) is a hybrid. Anderson Cooper (CNN) is a hybrid. Chuck Todd (MSNBC) is a hybrid. All attempt to be fair, tough, and objective, but will share their viewpoint when they deem necessary.

Hybrids can wear several hats, but shouldn’t be confused with opinion hosts, who aren’t paid to even resemble traditional anchors and go right to opinions instead. Oftentimes in doing so, an opinion host will take a stand or share a perspective with a statement or lecture before posing a question off of it to their guests. Examples using this definition: Sean Hannity (Fox) is an opinion host. Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) is an opinion host. Michael Smerconish (CNN) is an opinion host.

And then there’s straight news reporters/correspondents. Examples using this definition: James Rosen (Fox) is a reporter/correspondent (State Department); Chris Jansing (MSNBC) is a reporter/anchor/correspondent (White House, field anchor). Elise Labott (CNN) is a reporter (global affairs).

So if you’re going to compare Labott to anyone, Lemon isn’t right example. A Rosen or Jansing (the latter has been MSNBC’s best asset during its Paris coverage, by the way) is much more appropriate. And even Labott knows the line she crossed here and admirably apologized quickly without excuses. Not sure a suspension was even fair here, considering how unclear the aforementioned line between reporting and editorial has become. But with apologies comes accountability, and Labott appears to be accepting it.

But that isn’t stopping a social media barrage using #IStandWithElise to make the ridiculous argument that Labott is being silenced because CNN brass doesn’t agree with her on the refugee issue and therefore is attempting to squash free speech as a result. Here’s a guarantee: almost none of those standing with Elise under the guise of the 1st Amendment would be saying the same if she sent out a tweet agreeing with the refugee bill. If anything, they would be calling for her suspension. Funny how that works…

One more point: CNN White House Senior Correspondent Jim Acosta has also been mentioned in the argument against the network around selective justice. Short version: “Hey! Why can Acosta editorialize as a allegedly-neutral reporter but Elise LaBott can’t? Short answer: Acosta describing ISIS as “bastards” isn’t exactly wading into a 50/50 for/against controversy. Pretty much the entire planet would characterize the greatest evil we’ve seen since the Nazis in far worse terms. So can it really be an editorial if basically everyone is in agreement with the opinion?

Elise Labott is a talented, dogged reporter. She’ll be back and this will likely be forgotten unless she makes the same mistake again (given all the attention this has received in the bubble, here’s betting she won’t). She now also belongs to a growing list of cable news reporters and personalities who, despite being fully-grown adults, have no absolutely ability to filter and edit themselves.

Welcome to the zoo of cable news… where anchors, hybrid hosts, opinion folks, pundits and straight news reporters all roam. And on terrain as clear as mud, are now increasingly more difficult to distinguish from one another.

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Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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