The worst aspect of the Charlie Hebdo affair is that human beings were murdered for practicing free speech. A distant second is the way this affair, and the earlier hacking of the Sony Pictures studio, has exposed the pieties and inadequacies of so much of the media.
Speaking the other day at the Consumer Electronics Show, Kazuo Hirai, CEO of Sony Corp., is reported to have said that he was proud “of all of the employees of Sony Pictures for standing up against the extortionist efforts of those criminals that attacked” the company.
And despite the happy profusion of “Je Suis Charlie” displays, what has been the response of American media companies to that monstrous act? As reported in Politico on Jan. 7, CNN senior editorial director, Richard Griffiths, sent a message to CNN staff saying, among other things, that “Video or stills of street protests showing Parisians holding up copies of the offensive cartoons, if shot wide, are OK. Avoid close-ups of the cartoons that make them clearly legible.”
And here, according to a piece in Rolling Stone, is the way the Associated Press described its decision regarding the Hebdo cartoons: “We’ve taken the view that we don’t want to publish hate speech or spectacles that offend, provoke or intimidate, or anything that desecrates religious symbols or angers people along religious or ethnic lines. … We don’t feel that’s useful.”
Even the Hollywood bible, Variety magazine, adds to the general alarm:
A brutal attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has jolted Hollywood, escalating concerns by artists and producers that major studios and networks may avoid greenlighting movies and TV shows with potentially inflammatory content….
Freedom of speech is under attack, but, given Sony’s initial decision to pull the release of The Interview and its subsequent about-face, it’s not clear how rousing a defense the entertainment business is willing to mount in the midst of financial pressures, political dangers, and the threat of violence.
Making matters incalculably worse is the fact that the most immediate threats to free speech in this country don’t come from abroad, but from here at home. As described three years ago by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, we are witnessing the censoring of speech under one of four rationales: Speech is blasphemous; Speech is hateful; Speech is discriminatory; Speech is deceitful.
Shortly after the Sony affair broke open, Ross Douthat, the loneliest and bravest journalist at the New York Times, wrote one of the most powerful paragraphs about that, and related, matters:
Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and CEOs defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.
So why should anyone be remotely surprised when Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?
So what to do? Enforcement of the First Amendment won’t suffice because it only proscribes governmental abridgement of free speech, and only, of course, in the United States.
Here are a couple suggestions. The next time you read or hear something that you think is truly awful, moronic, hateful, or false, send a comment by email, text, or social media stating your objections but also saying that you respect the right of the offending party to speak his or her piece.
And when you hear of some group or individual threatening advertisers with boycotts for advertising on programs they don’t like, contact those same advertisers yourself and let them know that you have a different view.
In the end, free speech can be guaranteed, if at all, not by the press or government, but only by the people.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. This article was originally published here in the online edition of USA Today on Jan. 15, 2015.