CNN’s Ocatavia Nasr: Another Victim of Cognitive Dissonance

Octavia Nasr, a CNN editor and reporter for two decades, just got her walking papers for a 140-character tweet reading, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” The problem is that this particular “giant” was an anti-American, anti-Israeli terrorist who advocated suicide bombings and who encouraged terrorist acts by Hezbollah. In an explanatory blog post that failed to save her job, Nasr blamed the limitations of Twitter, and explained that she didn’t really admire him, just his stance against the abuse of Muslim women.

Maybe. When you say you respect a terrorist, it is hard to argue that you really meant that you admire his cooking skills, or liked his position on global warming. This is the peril of the cognitive dissonance process, which makes it hard to admire one aspect of someone’s life or character without letting that admiration moderate a negative opinion of the individual as a whole. [You can read about how the process works in this earlier Ethics Alarms Post.] The same forces work in reverse: if you detest one thing a person has done, it is difficult to hold on to your admiration of the rest of him. Clarence Darrow said, “Hate the sin, never the sinner,” but that’s easier said than done.

It is likely that Nasr’s admiration for the late cleric’s stand on a topic she felt deeply about did cause her to respect and admire him. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that this might well make her less disapproving, not only of him, but of the other things he stood for, or, perhaps, the fact that she didn’t feel especially strongly about his anti-Israel and anti-American positions made it possible for her to admire him for his stance against violence against women. In either case, it seems likely that she really did admire him, and that her blog post came from her head, not her heart.

The tweet, however, proved that she was conflicted, and that her objectivity regarding the Middle East could no longer be assumed or trusted. As an editor for CNN, she would therefore make CNN less trustworthy. She had to go.

Cognitive dissonance can alter our opinions and attitudes without our realizing it, which is why it is an essential tool of leadership, advertising, marketing, politics, propaganda, brain-washing and indoctrination. What happened to Octavia Nasr could happen to any of us.

In fact, it probably has already.

4 thoughts on “CNN’s Ocatavia Nasr: Another Victim of Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Since when has objectivity been a requirement for anyone in the media? I’m genuinely (not facetiously) asking as there are numerous examples daily of reporters biases.

    If an organization were to respond ethically, they would not care what opinions someone holds instead choosing to judge their employee on the basis of their work. That seems to be the opposite of what happened here.

    • But the credibility issue is something no media outlet can ignore. At this point, she could be a s objective as the day is long, but who would trust or believe her? In journalism, the perception of bias is just as harmful as the real thing, and a journalist has to avoid either.

  2. Cognitive dissonance is an insidious thing that is hard to recognize and deal with.

    For that reason, I sympathize with her plight, but she made a mistake. Mistakes cost, especially when they shed doubt on your credibility, and this one was a doozy.

    Reporters can report without being totally objective and still do a good job. But when reporters (or editors) lose their credibility, they become a liability to their employer.

  3. Pingback: Trust, the News and Journalist Biases: You Can’t Get There From Here « Ethics Alarms

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