I happened to be on Twitter when Nir Rosen, a journalist and fellow at New York University, was destroying his reputation on Tuesday. In a matter of minutes, he went from joking about Lara Logan’s assault in Egypt, to digging in and defending himself, to self-justifying semi-apology, to abject regret. It was appalling to watch, and it indicated that Rosen has deep, unexamined problems with women, particularly women who are his more-celebrated competitors. But it was also appalling to realize that this brief, ugly outburst was going to eclipse an often-heroic career. The media’s modern panopticon has an awful way of reducing us all to the worst thing we’ve ever done.
It took less than a day for Rosen to lose his job at the Center for Law and Security at New York University. Officially he resigned, but the statement by the center’s executive director, Karen Greenberg, makes it pretty clear he had no choice. Calling his comments “cruel and insensitive and completely unacceptable,” she wrote that while he had apologized and left his position, “this in no way compensates for the harm his comments have inflicted.” Besides losing his job, Rosen has done incalculable damage to his journalism career. He’s one of the most intrepid reporters out there, spending months at a time in war zones, embedding with insurgents as well as American troops. While he’s been published in most major magazines, he’d already made things difficult for himself with his strident opposition to the conflicts he covers and his often-hyperbolic criticism of Israel. He may never find his way back into the sort of venues with the budgets to finance his intensive reporting.
“Like anyone who’s done the kind of reporting he’s done, he’s had to struggle to place stories, “ says Esther Kaplan, his editor at The Nation Investigative Fund, which has supported his work in Iraq. “He’s bucking the mainstream narrative about these wars. It’s obviously going to be harder coming out of this, and it’s his own fault.”
Kaplan is right—Rosen’s wound is purely self-inflicted. But while he should be embarrassed, he should not be destroyed. Again and again, we see people who make one mistake either forced out of their jobs or held up for brutal public excoriation. But the more we live in public, the more we need to develop some sort of mercy for those who briefly let the dark parts of themselves slip out, particularly when they’re truly sorry afterward.
The more we live in public, the more we need to develop some sort of mercy for those who briefly let the dark parts of themselves slip out.
Last summer, CNN’s Octavia Nasr was fired after tweeting, “sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” The comment is less shocking than it seems when one considers Fadlallah’s relatively feminist positions, particularly his fatwas forbidding violence against women. Such nuances, naturally, got lost on Twitter, and Nasr was forever branded as a terrorist sympathizer. A few months later, Rick Sanchez annihilated his career in seconds over resentful comments about Jewish network executives who, he felt, looked down on him. His words, which gestured at the old canard about Jews controlling the media, were even less defensible than Nasr’s, though there was still something harrowing about watching a man undone so quickly by a flash of his own seething id.
Shortly after Sanchez’s debacle, a friend of mine, Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly, tossed off a thoughtless, nasty post about her horror at seeing fat people on television. As she later acknowledged, her moral blind spot was caused by her own history of anorexia, and within moments of publishing the item, she desperately wished to take it down. But it was too late, and soon she was being flayed across the Internet and on television, with Sharon Osbourne calling her a “bitch” and a “discredit to other women.” Obviously, it’s easier to empathize with someone’s disgrace when you know her, and know she’s wracked with shame. But I felt a similar pit-of-my-stomach horror last summer, watching an obscure Harvard law student singled out for two minutes of national hate over leaked racist emails. Not because I sympathized with the awful things she wrote, but because it’s horrible to see obscure people dragged out for mass public vilification, even if in some ways they deserve it.
Which brings us to Rosen. His comments about Logan were grotesque, and came from a very twisted place. But he apologized fulsomely and sincerely, and has kept apologizing. In an interview on Mediabistro after the whole thing happened, he seemed profoundly mortified. “I feel like when you have done something so offensive and stupid, even trying to explain it seems like you are justifying it and what you say will be taken out of context,” he said, later adding, “I feel like shrinking now, I am so embarrassed for what I have done and how many people I offended. I always meant for my work to offend the powerful and give comfort to the weak. Yesterday I did the opposite of that.” He’s done himself few favors with subsequent, defensive attempts to explain himself—especially the self-serving essay he wrote for Salon. Still, the general picture is of someone grappling with real remorse and humiliation.
This is very different from the reaction of Debbie Schlussel, a right-wing New York Post columnist and regular O’Reilly Factor guest, to the uproar over her vicious comments about Logan. “How fitting that Lara Logan was 'liberated' by Muslims in Liberation Square while she was gushing over the other part of the 'liberation,'” Schlussel wrote on Tuesday. “Hope you're enjoying the revolution, Lara!” The next day, rather than apologizing, she doubled down: “[I]t warms my heart when reporters who openly deny that Islam is violent and constantly promote it get the same kinds of threats of violence I get every day from Muslims. Because now they know how it feels.”
Most of us have hideous thoughts, flashes of perverse malice and moments of irrationality or simple bad judgment. There should be penalties for revealing them, but, when there’s genuine contrition, there should also be forgiveness. Imagine what would have happened if previous generations of volatile writers had had to navigate a world without filters. The most interesting among them would quickly become pariahs.
“What happened to Lara Logan was horrific, and to me as a woman journalist deeply upsetting,” says Kaplan. “I spend a lot of time trying to encourage women reporters to do this kind of reporting, to not cede the field of conflict reporting to men. I’m devastated by this, and the fact that Nir made the comments that he made is unacceptable, period. But the body of his work in reporting on these wars is also invaluable, and that shouldn’t be lost in this current debate.”
Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.