One of the strangest reactions to today’s horrific terror attack in Paris has been the Western media’s collective freakout resulting in news organizations making a point of censoring their own work. I don’t mean having a policy of not showing certain images, although that’s part of the dispiriting response. But some news organizations seemed to have gone out of their way in order to demonstrate self-censorship. The result is major English-language media–organizations that are about as visible as it gets–trying to delete their own digital footprint.
Now, I don’t subscribe to the notion that all visual media must show the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons that were at the center of Islamist terror today. I don’t really think freedom of the press means we should bully newspapers and magazines into publishing something. They should be permitted, of course, to offend: that’s press freedom. But they don’t have a responsibility to offend just because we want them to. That said, there was a bizarre trend today in which media organs seemed to go out of their way to show the world that they were censoring the very images that were rallying the West to France’s side, even (or especially) when no one would have noticed if they hadn’t.
The best examples of this are what the New York Daily News did, which mirrored what the UK Telegraph did. After twelve people were killed in the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, with the murderers reportedly yelling that Muhammad had been “avenged” by the attack, the Telegraph posted a photo in which a copy of the paper appeared but blurred the “offensive” part of the cover. Why post the photo at all other than as some kind of preemptive and desperate capitulation?
The Daily News did the same, in an especially undignified manner. The paper ran a picture (still up as I write this, at this link) of Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier (known as Charb), who was killed in the attack. The photo shows Charb outside the wreckage of Charlie Hebdo’s offices after they were firebombed in 2011. Charb is holding up a copy of the paper, which the Daily News blurred. The symbolism of that particular picture, with the blurred cover, is perfectly on the nose.
Other preemptive self-censorship followed, usually after the discovery of just regular old self-censorship. In a roundup of censorship, Rosie Gray revealed that the Associated Press was removing photos from its library showing Charlie Hebdo covers that satirized Muhammad. The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney posted that despite this censorship, the AP was still selling its photo of “Piss Christ.” Soon after that, the AP took that photo down as well.
That latter move is actually somewhat insulting to Christians, though they don’t need me to register outrage on their behalf or presume to know how they should react. But it strikes me as creating the impression of a false equivalence: they don’t have to censor images like that because Christians won’t take up violence against them. Their censorship of images critical of Islam is to prevent the very real threat of Muslim violence in response to speech.
So taking down “Piss Christ” suggests one of two narratives, both false. One, that there is a threat of violence from Christians in some way equal to the threat of violence from Muslims. Two, that Christians desire censorship of images they find offensive. The former is less damaging because it’s patently ridiculous: there is no threat of Christian violence for blasphemy in the media. The latter is more damaging, potentially: it reverses what Christian objectors actually wanted today, which was, by and large, less censorship of all things instead of equal censorship across the board.
Christians are not campaigning for the end of free speech in the West, and yet the AP acts as though they are. That’s deeply dishonest, and completely misses the point when Christians complain of the double standard. That’s why I used the word “freakout” earlier to describe the media’s behavior. The Associated Press appears to have lost its collective mind.
One bright spot in all this darkness is the behavior of the French public. They are pouring into the street to proclaim they are “not afraid” and the pictures are compelling. At one rally, they projected the cover of Charlie Hebdo onto a monument in the center of the gathering. The media should look carefully at it: they might notice it’s not been blurred, and neither has the message they’re sending.