When Islamist gunmen killed 10 journalists and two policemen in January at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine firebombed in 2011 for its irreverent cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, media reaction to the massacre immediately after was best summed up by the headline of an article in Reason magazine: “I’m all for free speech and murder is wrong, but…”
In much of the media the “but” trumped admiration and respect for the slain journalists’ insistence that religions, along with other institutions and ideas, can and should be mocked and laughed at.
Now, five months and three Charlie Hebdo-related events later, the media remain as divided about the meaning of the slaughter in Paris as they were in January. Too, media are as uncomfortable in dealing with and justifying their coverage and stance expressed in their reports and analyses.
Typical of the hostility toward Hebdo and its band of satirists were the sentiments of National Public Radio’s former ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in an interview with the Washington Examiner. He labeled the magazine’s Muhammad cartoons “intentionally provocative form of hate speech that are undeserving of protection,” and slammed First Amendment “fundamentalists” who mistakenly suggest that the United States has “absolute freedom of the press.”
He added that he didn’t know “if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution,” unaware that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. As Eugene Volokh, professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law pointed out on his blog (the Volokh Conspiracy) in the Washington Post: “hateful ideas are as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.”
There are narrow exceptions, which primarily relate to speech leading to immediate incitement or creating a hostile workplace environment, but “hate speech” has no “fixed legal meaning under U.S. law,” Volokh notes.
None of that stopped a barrage of media attacks on Hebdo, calling the killing of its staff members not excusable or justifiable, but perhaps quite “understandable.” As blogger Kitty Striker wrote, Hebdo’s “racist, homophobic language is not satire. I think it’s abusive, and I think it punches down, harshly and often.”
Facts rarely interfered with the hits on Hebdo. A piece on the Daily Beast pointed out what French scholars discovered; namely that “in the last decade just seven of Charlie Hebdo’s 523 covers dealt with Islam.” And as one of the magazine’s supporters, Dominique Sopo, Togolese president of SOS-Racism (France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization) tried to explain: “Every week, half of Charlie Hebdo was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”
What the magazine was really about was lost in the hullaballoo and outrage over the Muhammad cartoons, or it was dismissed, as on the left-wing website Counterpunch as an “extended adolescent revolt.”
Not surprisingly, among U.S. media, the New York Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC and the Associated Press refused to publish any of the Muhammad cartoons. The Times said it does not publish materials that “offend the religious sensibilities” of its readers, but did not inform them which of their sensibilities, if any, it was OK to offend.
Media organizations publishing one or several of the cartoons included the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Bloomberg, HuffingtonPost, Daily Beast and the New York Post.
Our paper of record is unwilling or unable to understand what M.G. Oprea, writing in the Federalist magazine, understands so well: “Freedom of expression is worthless if it excludes speech that offends someone.”
Coverage of Charlie Hebdo, Michael Cavna observed in the Washington Post, “pulled and polarized media on opposite sides of a kinetic dividing line.” Five months after the slaughter in Paris, posthumous publication of a book by Charlie Hebdo’s editor, exposed that dividing line once again.
On April 16 the New York Times ran a story on its website about “Open Letter to the Fraudsters of Islamophobia Who Play Into Racists’ Hands,” Stephane Charbonnier’s book (only in French, so far) and headlined the story “Book by Slain Charlie Hebdo Editor Argues Islam Is not Exempt From Ridicule.”
The headline apparently did not sit well with some editors, fearful of giving offense, so the headline of the same story in next day’s print edition read: “With Posthumous Book, Charlie Hebdo Editor Proves Defiant in Death.” Excerpts from the book, which ran in the weekly newsmagazine L ‘Obs, show him more thoughtful than defiant: “The problem is neither the Quran nor the Bible,” he wrote, “sleep-inducing, incoherent and badly written novels. The problem is the faithful, who read the holy books like instructions for assembling Ikea shelves.”
The media, in America and abroad, chose to ignore his broadside at all fundamentalist faith and blasted away at his attacks on those of his targets who misunderstood or deliberately misstated the magazine’s satire: “Charlie Hebdo editor attacks liberals from the grave,” shouted London’s Times. Britain’s Telegraph saw the book as a “posthumous attack on left-wing French intellectuals.” And our own NPR saw “Islamophobia” as the book’s main target of attack.
Much of the coverage ignored one target, the one exposed by Matt Welch on April 17 in Reason: “He (Charbonnier) pillories the unquestioning use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ by some journalists either out of laziness or commercial interest.” The Washington Post stood out for also exploring the book’s condemnation of “journalists, politicians and others, whom he accused of using fear of Islam for their own purposes.” The paper earned plaudits for quoting Chardonnier’s words: “The problem is not religions, but those who practice and distort them.”
Reading the excerpts available might have brought journalists closer to understanding what Hebdo’s satire, following is about. Charlie Hebdo was seen in France as “the scourge of post-fascist (French) political party Front National, the enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activist, fellow-traveler of the French Communist party, staunch agitator for Palestine…” as readers of the publication understand and informed those journalists (as those from the Daily Beast) willing to listen.
Most media did not bother to reach for and attain such an understanding. So when PEN, the international organization of writers, chose to grant its “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo (in New York on May 5) the media focused its attention on the dissenters within PEN.
“A Literary Honoree Splits Allies,” the New York Times proclaimed, unwilling to decide whether or not the magazine was “a misunderstood honoree, or perhaps just a bigoted outlet.” The “bigoted outlet” fans made most of the noise and so got most of the attention.
Publications printed their protests and outcries, which made much better copy than the calm defenses of the magazine and its contributions to social and political satire.
The letter signed initially by 145 PEN members claimed that Charlie Hebdo publishes “selectively offensive material that intensifies the anti-Islam…anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
Individual members were even nastier. Novelist Francine Prose called Hebdo’s cartoons “gleefully racist” and suggested that they “conveniently feed into a larger political narrative of white Europeans killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case.” Only a few (the Daily Beast standing tall among them) dared to point out that the families of the 10 Hebdo staffers and two police officers as well as the four customers assassinated in a kosher market, might beg to differ.
Prose continued her assault on the victims by claiming that she saw no difference in Joseph Goebbels’ anti-Semitic propaganda “spewing eliminationist rhetoric” and Hebdo’s “mocking religious radicals.” Similarly, novelist Deborah Eisenberg asked PEN if it would “grant the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer?” (The Nazi magazine that featured cartoons- of Jews as blood-sucking and blond –maiden- chasing sub-humans.)
No traditional media outlet asked viewers or readers to compare cartoons from that publication with any from Charlie Hebdo, which The New Yorker described as “blatantly, roughly sexual and not designed to endear them to Jews or Christians,” but not as viscerally racist or dehumanizing. Hebdo’s cartoons, cited by the magazine, showed the Pope kissing a member of the Vatican guard and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.
Survivor of the Paris massacre, Hebdo’s film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who missed the January 7 editorial meeting because he overslept, was invited to the PEN ceremony. When confronted with the comments of some dissenting PEN members and their comparisons of his publication’s cartoons to Nazi propaganda, shrugged and said: “They don’t really know what they’re talking about.”
It surprised few, then, that the May 2 attempted attack on an exhibit of a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas, received the usual and by now tired same-old coverage. The two gunmen, killed by a local traffic officer wanted to shout “The prophet is avenged,” as one killer did in Paris over the body of a policeman, but their path to the attack was by now an old story. The mother of one slain gunman said her son “was raised in a normal American fashion.”
A few media blamed the event’s organizer, blogger Pamela Geller, for exercising “bad judgment” and inviting a violent response. And that’s what had already been said back in 2011, when Islamists firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
The botched shooting will, appropriately enough, be used by Abilene Christian University’s journalism department as a teaching tool, KTXS-TV in Abilene reported in a brief bulletin.
There is much to find out about the media’s unease with the meaning of free speech — specifically which restrictions or constraints on the First Amendment the media accept or reject.
The media might want to reflect on what it means that nine years ago six in 10 Americans felt it was irresponsible for newspapers to run cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, but that today six in 10 respondents say they are OK with papers doing just that.
The media might want to ask themselves if they are willing to “accept a gag order by a religion that can’t stand criticism or mockery.”
And they might want to ask themselves if the “negative liberty” granted by the First Amendment allows exceptions for legally irrelevant categories such as “bad taste” or “bad judgment.”
And finally, they might want to think about how their answers, and their conduct based on those answers, touch on the survival of an open and free society and laws designed to keep it open and free.