The attack on Charlie Hebdo has been (almost) universally condemned. Given the savagery and insanity of the attack that’s not surprising, but I waited with bated breath to see what would happen next. In particular, I wanted to see the reaction of journalism media – particularly the Canadian English journalism media, such as it is. I expected to be disappointed, and I was.
Riddle me this: Twelve people, including the originating cartoonists, were murdered specifically over some cartoons. These cartoons, by the way, are not even particularly pornographic or gory, and certainly can’t be reasonably interpreted as hate speech; there’s nothing about them that would seem to preclude putting them on the air. Put yourself in the shoes of an editor at a news media outlet. How could you possibly report the story of this tragedy without showing the cartoons that provoked it? Even without the broader issues of journalistic solidarity, you can’t seriously expect to tell the story of the murders without showing the cartoons that these people supposedly died for. The story is simply incomplete without that context.
Let me give a hearty thumbs-up to Canada’s French-speaking media. Most French-speaking journalism outlets went ahead and showed images of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. They did it, not only because it is the logical and honest thing to do when reporting the story of the murders, but also to drive home the point that the murderers failed… or rather, would not be allowed to succeed. They murdered twelve people to make those cartoons disappear, so every media outlet that shows them further hammers home the point that they were stupid and wrong, and they lost.
Canada’s English-speaking media, however, disappoints. They do not surprise, sadly. But they disappoint.
My condemnation in this post extends broadly to virtually all Canadian English media – with the exception of the National Post, which did publish images of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons uncensored. However, I’m going to focus here on CBC News, partly because they’re Canada’s public news network, but also because they’re one of the few who went public trying to justify their decision. They’ll serve as an example of the whole cowardly lot.
In their coverage of the shootings, CBC News naturally showed several images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the Thursday edition of their flagship news show – The National, with Peter Mansbridge – they showed this cartoon – these, by the way, are actual screen shots of what was shown on the CBC, totally untouched:
I believe – guessing with no more context than you see here – that that is an image of François Hollande putting Nicolas Sarkozy’s head in a sausage grinder. Not exactly an image appropriate for kids, but whatever… the news story this image appears in is about the brutal murders of twelve innocent people who were just having an average day at work; it hardly makes sense to worry about making the images in this story kid-safe.
Next up, they show this:
That, I believe, is the Pope (looks like Benedict, not Francis), holding up a condom and blessing it the way he might bless a communion wafer. The caption is “The Pope goes too far!”
Then they show this:
That’s Jesus, and the caption reads “Dinner of/for dumbasses” – which I believe is referring to a film – and it seems to be referencing the Last Supper, but I can’t really tell without more context. (CBC never shows the bottom of the page, but I found the full image elsewhere. It turns out that Jesus is inviting his followers to sit at the table for the “dinner for dumbasses”. Ouch.)
Then there’s a short aside were they recall the Jyllands-Posten controversy of 2005/2006 (which Charlie Hebdo played a notable part in). After that, they return to showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons:
Wait a minute… one of these things is not like the others.
Let me clarify this again: These images are lifted directly from CBC News (specifically, their Internet videos). Other than converting them to JPEG, with some standard compression settings, I did not edit them in any way.
I have to guess what the blurred cover originally was, but I suspect it was this:
I got the above image from Slate – specifically from an article about Charlie Hebdo’s most controversial religious covers – which describes it thusly:
In 2006, the magazine featured Mohammed weeping with the headline “Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalism.” This was the cover of the issue that also featured reprinted cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that caricatured the prophet. Jacques Chirac, French president at the time, denounced the magazine and Muslim groups sued, but courts eventually ruled in Charlie Hebdo’s favor.
So, to recap… the CBC reprinted a cartoon showing the President of France grinding the head of his opponent in a sausage grinder… a cartoon showing the former Pope doing the blessing of the sacraments with a condom… and a cartoon of Jesus inviting all of his followers to sit at the table at the “dinner for dumbasses”. But an image of fairly politely drawn Muhammad in tears because of what fundamentalism is doing to Islam? That is just too much for them. That is the line they will not cross.
That cowardice did not surprise me. I’ve seen it before. In 2006, when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was being flooded with death threats from all around the world, Charlie Hebdo was one of a very small number of publications worldwide that dared to republish their cartoons in their entirety. It was a gesture of solidarity and support, and – they hoped – a message to the extremists making the threats that their efforts were futile and self-defeating; threats would not silence speech or criticism, and making such threats would only serve to increase the volume. It was a brave move by the plucky little satirical magazine. However, the big and powerful voices in journalism – especially in the English-speaking world – largely turned their backs on both Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo. They did exactly what the extremists wanted them to do: cave, and cower to their wishes. And in doing so, they threw those few brave voices that refused to submit to the wolves, and left them to fend for themselves.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was only possible because the large and powerful voices in journalism were silent when free speech needed them most. And now, in the aftermath of the attack, they’re doing it again.
As disappointed and disgusted as I am, I am determined to give the CBC every chance to defend its choices. After all, the cruelest standard you can judge someone by is their own.
In an interview with David Studer, CBC’s director of journalistic standards and practices – an interview that seems particularly uncomfortable, despite appearing mostly scripted – Andrew Nichols pretends he’s being a journalist and asks Studer to “clarify” the CBC’s decision to refuse to reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. It’s laughably bad; Studer tries at least a half-dozen rhetorical tricks to justify his cowardice. Amusingly, after a clip where (director of the Québec Federation of Professional Journalists) Caroline Walker explains that the French side of the CBC, Radio-Canada, is publishing the images both to show they are not afraid and to send the message that these kinds of attacks are futile, Studer is left stammering and unable to respond, ultimately dodging the issue by saying it’s “above his pay grade to explain”.
Let’s consider the Studer’s defences against the criticisms of the CBC’s decision, one-by-one.
“You don’t need to see them to understand the story; it is enough to know they exist”
According to Studer, you don’t need to actually see the cartoons to understand that the murders were about them. The attack wasn’t due to the content of the cartoons, he argues, but merely due to the fact of their existence.
Well, fuck you, Mr. Studer, because an honest journalist would let the public see the cartoons and decide that for themselves, rather than deciding the conclusions for them then using it as a flimsy justification for censorship.
I’m honestly not even sure who graced Studer with the divine revelation of the killers’ motivations – before they were even caught! I’m not sure how he can conclude that the content of the cartoons has no relevance whatsoever in the killers’ minds. But even if he were somehow right, I don’t know why he can’t let us come to that conclusion ourselves after our own review of the facts. I’m not a journalist, but isn’t the point of journalism to put the facts into the hands of the public, not the conclusions?
More importantly, even if Studer were right and the content of the cartoons was irrelevant to the killers, it wasn’t irrelevant to the victims. Those cartoonists and their supporting staff did not draw pictures of Muhammad for shits and giggles. They were doing it for reasons, and they were doing it for those reasons with the full knowledge that being murdered for doing it was a very real possibility. They died for the content of those cartoons… not for the mere fact of their existence, but for their content. How can we possibly evaluate the full measure of their sacrifice, and the full scope of the tragedy, without being able to see what they died for… what they died for specifically because they wanted us to see it?
That’s why the CBC’s decision is not just cowardly, but disgustingly offensive. It’s all about the killers and those who agree with the killers’ opinions… with not a thought spared to the victims or their supporters. The murders happened specifically because of a desire to prevent those cartoons from being publicized… the cartoonists died specifically because of a desire to publicize those cartoons… CBC – and all those news outlets who made the same decision – are thumbing their nose at the victims and kowtowing to the wishes of their murderers. You disgust me, CBC.
Let’s assume for a moment that the content of the cartoons really is irrelevant. Even accepting that, they can still serve as part of the surrounding context for the murders. The CBC isn’t really shy about throwing contextual information into their news stories – even when it has nothing at all to do with the incident being reported on. How else would I know that Nathan Cirillo had plans to be a full-time soldier, joined the cadets at 13, had the nickname “Army Nate” in high school, was a personal trainer, worked at Good Life Fitness, and often showed up at his bouncer job still in his fatigues… not to mention myriad details about his family. The CBC not only published just about every utterance about Cirillo made on Twitter, they actually live-blogged the fucking funeral. Now why didn’t Studer object to that?: “It is unnecessary to actually show the funeral; it is enough to know that the funeral happened.”
Let me try to sum up the reasons why the content of the cartoons is important – not merely the fact that they exist, as Studer claims.
- The cartoons were almost certainly the primary motive for the murders. But Studer is simply making shit up when he pretends that it was the mere existence of the cartoons that drove the killers into a savage frenzy, and that the content has no relevance.
- Publishing the cartoons was definitely the primary reason the Charlie Hebdo staff knowingly put themselves at risk. The message of those cartoons – whatever it was – was what most of those people chose to risk their lives for. We cannot understand or assess the risks they took without the content of the cartoons. We wouldn’t know what they died for; at most we would only know what they were killed for. And that’s not good enough.
- No matter how hard Studer might try to deny it, the content of the cartoons is part of the broader story of why the attack occurred. Even if it were true that the content of the cartoons was irrelevant to the killers, we can’t understand what kind of magazine Charlie Hebdo is, and its relationship with France’s Muslim population, without knowing how it depicts Islam and Muslims. (For example, does it mock them more, less, or the same as any other religious or minority group? Does it mock them in the same ways, or does it show special malice to Islam (or Muslims)?)
“Muslims get special consideration because this really offends them”
I think this evasion over and above all the others is where Studer is most craven.
The problem – as Nichols points out – is that in refusing to show the cartoons to protect Muslims from offence, CBC is instead offending everyone who strongly believes in free expression and standing up to terrorism. They have to justify why it is more important to protect Muslims from offence and offend free speech advocates, rather than vice versa. Even more troubling, they have to explain why this only holds true for Muslims – they fearlessly show very blasphemous images of Jesus when they’re newsworthy, but won’t even show a tame… or even complimentary… image of Muhammad, even when it is the whole point of the news story.
And most troubling of all, CBC has to justify kowtowing to the delicate sensibilities of Muslims in this case in particular… because in this case in particular it is not only exactly what the murderers want, it is literally what they committed the murders to achieve.
Studer evades and rambles, but ultimately ends up saying nothing. He never even comes close to a cogent explanation for why Muslim feelings matter more than anyone else’s. He blathers some bullshit about how they’ve always been RLY SRS about aniconism (which isn’t even really true), and thus their feelings shouldn’t be hurt, but this can be easily shown to be hogwash in at least two different ways. First, you could point out that Christians are equally sensitive about Jesus being portrayed in insulting ways (rather than merely being portrayed at all), yet the CBC shows those images when they are relevant. Second, you could point out that many Muslims are equally offended by depictions of women without hijab, yet they are not accommodated. Ultimately, the decision to protect those particular people from that particular offence is arbitrary, and no other group is given similar respect. That is not “tolerance”, that is capitulation.
Let me be clear about one particular point, though: I’m not suggesting that the CBC should show pictures of Muhammad just for the hell of it. I’m especially not suggesting that they show insulting or satirical images of Muhammad just for the hell of it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing those things, but there is no reason for CBC News to do it – unlike Charlie Hebdo, they’re not a satirical paper that aims to take the piss out of anyone and anything that takes themselves to seriously, they’re a news outlet with a mandate to report relevant information about current events. Thus they shouldn’t show images of Muhammad just to be provocative, but they should show them when they are relevant to current events… as they are in this case.
I have to clarify this because this is one of the smarmy evasive tactics that Studer tries; he tries to imply that the only reason one might have for showing a picture of Muhammad is to be intolerant, insensitive, or just plain provocative. At one point he makes the patently dishonest point that he wouldn’t have opted to show the cartoons the day before the killings, and concludes from that that he shouldn’t do it the day after… as if nothing has fucking changed between those two days.
My answer to that is that I agree to the first part: With no reason at all to show the cartoons, the day before the shootings, the fact that they might offend or upset is reason enough to refuse to show them at all. However, Mr. Studer seems to have completely lost track of the whole purpose of his damn network in the second part: After the shootings, the cartoons have become news… you know, that shit that Studer’s network actually specifically exists to show… thus they should be shown, and to hell with people who might be upset or offended by the sight of them. This is the same position the network should take for any relevant but potentially disturbing content, ranging from blasphemous material to mangled bodies: don’t show it for no reason at all, but if it’s part of a news story and showing it is important to telling the whole of that news story, then bloody well show it.
“We do not become part of the story, or take sides; we merely report it”
This is the only place Studer comes close to a good point, but even here his position is weak at best.
The gist of it is that CBC News wants to position itself as an impartial, uninvolved reporter of the news (whenever it is possible, of course; obviously this wouldn’t apply to things like the Jian Ghomeshi scandal), so it should studiously avoid anything that makes it part of the story, taking sides in a story, or making the story about how they feel about the situation (as opposed to how those involved feel about it)… even if their feelings about the story are very strong.
This is an admirable goal, in theory. In practice, it is neither achievable, nor even desirable. And CBC itself knows this.
I get the Toronto/Ontario version of CBC, which means my local evening anchors are Anne-Marie Mediwake and Dwight Drummond – whom I both quite like. One of the promos the station shows (which I can’t find online, unfortunately) features Mediwake and Drummond walking around Toronto, interacting with people, grocery shopping, etc., with the tagline: “It’s not just covering the news. It’s experiencing it with you.” The point of the promo is that CBC News Toronto is a good source of news because it part of the same world as its viewers, which makes it more involved in the stories, and thus more motivated to seek them out and tell them well.
Which, of course, almost entirely contradicts the way Studer describes the network and its responsibilities.
I’m not pointing this out to highlight an inconsistency within the CBC about its vision of the news, but rather to illustrate a fundamental tension that exists in journalism. On the one hand, it’s nice if journalists try to tell stories with absolute impartiality, using the perfect set of relevant and necessary facts without specious or biasing extras. On the other, not only are journalists and news outlets not robots, but it is their very attachment to and investment in the same culture as their audience that drives them to do their job, and do it well. Denying that is not only pointless, it is disingenuous.
This particular story is not something that the CBC has no stake in; it is not merely a passive observer with no stake in it. CBC News has a responsibility, defined by journalistic integrity, to tell the stories that Canadians need to know… even if it won’t make them happy to hear it. Protecting the feelings of their audience – attempting to shield them from hurt feelings and offence – at the cost of telling the news honestly and with integrity would only undermine their efforts.
In fact… that’s what’s happening right here, right now. The CBC’s cowardice in not telling this very important story the way it should be told has become news itself – to the point where the director of journalistic standards and practices has to go on the air to (attempt to) justify itself. If they’d just done their damn job properly, Studer wouldn’t have had to go on the air to justify not doing it, and I wouldn’t have had to write this article. In other words, in going to absurd lengths to feign impartiality, the CBC has screwed itself – it has compromised its coverage of the story, and itself became news for its own cowardice.
There’s another important angle to consider as well. The reason Charlie Hebdo ended up in the crosshairs of crazies is that it did what few other media outlets would do: When terrorists threatened violence for republishing the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, Charlie Hebdo bravely went ahead and did it anyway. This was not only an act of bravery, and an act of defiance against terrorism and tyranny, it was a very pragmatic move: the more outlets that republish the cartoons, the less likely it is that any one of them in particular would come under attack.
Shamefully, very few other media outlets were as brave as Charlie Hebdo. Most of the largest and most powerful simply left the tiny, plucky little Charlie Hebdo to fend for itself against the wolves. Several times now Charlie Hebdo bore the brunt of the extremists’ ire alone – the attack on this week was only the most recent, and the most violent.
The lack of support by media and journalism in general was shameful, and embarrassing, and although it’s too late to save the brave but innocent victims of this massacre, now’s as good a time as any to take steps to prevent attacks like this from happening again. This is not merely about solidarity, and it is not merely a show of defiance – as with the original decision made by Charlie Hebdo, it is about pragmatism. If every major news media outlet had the backbone to show the cartoons the killers wanted to bury, it would make it clear that the killers had failed miserably, and that future attempts would be similarly futile.
Instead, by refusing to show the cartoons… even though they are central to the news story at hand… the CBC (and all the other cowardly networks refusing to publish the cartoons for stupid reasons) is actually making the killers’ strategy work. Which means other crazies are more likely to try it again. And maybe next time, at the CBC.
In other words, publishing the cartoons is not merely an act of solidarity, and not merely an act of defiance (though it can certainly be those things, too). It is an act of civic responsibility. The more who publish those cartoons, the less likely copycat attacks become. The more who refuse to do so, the more effective the killers’ strategy becomes – and the greater the likelihood of a repeat.
Besides, the “we won’t take sides” act is pure bullshit in this case. The CBC is hardly going to pretend to be neutral about the attack. They’re not seriously going to sit there and say: “Well, twelve people were killed while just going about their daily routine – drawing cartoons – by three people with assault rifles and grenade launchers… but we’re not going to pick sides here, and say one side was right and the other was wrong.”
Charlie Hebdo was attacked because it was one of the few publications brave enough to stand up to the extremists. The pusillanimous refusal of most media outlets to support Charlie Hebdo when they defended the rights of other publishers – such as Jyllands-Posten – is why the tiny publisher was so easy to single out as such an easy target.
You would think journalists would have learned their lesson by now, and some – like Radio-Canada – have. But the majority of English news outlets in Canada have learned nothing, and are just as cowardly and contemptible as they have always been. They reported on the murders, including copious details of the handiwork of the killers, while deliberately refusing show the handiwork of the victims… literally what they risked their lives and died for.
CBC’s David Studer, director of journalistic standards and practices, tried to justify the CBC’s decision… to no avail. His arguments – that the content of the cartoons is irrelevant to the story, that the censorship is okay because Muslims are really sincere about wanting it, and that they can’t show the cartoons because it would mean “taking sides” – are all hollow, incoherent, and ultimately self-serving.
One thing some of my readers have asked me to do in 2015 is to try to include better “bite-sized” quotes and images, so that others can easily quote the “gist” of what I write. I’ve always resisted being pithy – I prefer carefully thought-out and well-reasoned posts over inflammatory soundbites – but I’ll give it a try here. Let me see if I can summarize the bottom line of this post with a pithy quote and an image.
First, the summary image:
And finally, the pithy quote:
In refusing to even show the cartoons that the Charlie Hebdo staff were willing to risk their lives – and ultimately died – for, the Canadian English-speaking media has cravenly and despicably served the aims of the killers. Even though they should not have had to, the cartoonists and staff at Charlie Hebdo showed bravery and integrity that Canadian English-speaking journalism outlets clearly lack.
To all the news media outlets that refused to reprint the cartoons the staff at Charlie Hebdo risked their lives and died for, I say:
I am Charlie… you are not.
***UPDATE (2015-01-20 02:00) *** Veronica alerted me that Jerry Coyne is also on the CBC’s case.