Covering the media coverage of Charlie Hebdo

January 13, 2015

As the world follows the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo's offices and the deaths of twelve of its staff, some are reflecting on the nature of the media coverage as well as discrepancies in coverage between this and other acts of violence that occurred during the same week.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish publication Tikkun, muses in The Huffington Post on his own experiences receiving bomb threats at the magazine's office. Considering the widespread perception in western press that the Charlie Hebdo attacks are about free speech, he wonders why the threats made to Tikkun's offices, or the attack on the NAACP office in Colorado, are not treated similarly (or not at all). Lerner is critical of global media that ignores structural violence while sensationalizing specific acts of violence, implying a critical question: Whose purposes does it serve?

At The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald again notes that in this instance of celebrating "free speech," those lauding the cartoons are not only promoting the right of cartoonists to create and publish them, but the content of those images themselves. He writes that it's easy to defend free speech when one isn't offended by that speech. But, he also picks up on the question of who is served by this messaging.

Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome. And this messaging – this special affection for offensive anti-Islam speech – just so happens to coincide with, to feed, the militaristic foreign policy agenda of their governments and culture.

Again reminding us to pay attention to context, Thomas Chatterton Williams asks "who gets to laugh?" in N+1:

A crucial component of any joke or narrative can be found in who exactly is doing the telling. Until the underlying conditions depriving so many from being able to laugh together are addressed, a very sizable portion of the population will continue to have no honorable means of ever being Charlie.

Another question might be, what other stories could be told? For example, some have pointed to that of Ahmed Merabet, a French police officer of Algerian descent who was killed on the street outside of the Charlie Hebdo office. Voices on social media emphasize that Merabet was killed in the line of duty defending the speech rights of a publication that denigrates his own religious and ethnic background (and some have used the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed in place of the near ubiquitous #JeSuisCharlie to underscore these complexities). Others highlight the story of Lassana Bathily, a Muslim immigrant from Mali whose swift actions saved lives in the hostage crisis at a French kosher market last Friday. These figures contribute to an important counternarrative challenging a dangerous assumption--promoted recently by figures such as media giant Rupert Murdoch and leftist political commentator Bill Maher--that the problem it with Islam itself.

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