By now, you are likely aware of the tragic and horrific massacre that took place at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo this past week over some cartoons making fun of a religious figure. These cartoons. Needless to say, I think it’s a horrific attack against free speech and democracy by religion driven nutjobs, who think that gunning down a bunch of people is justified by the fact that they dared make fun of something. I think the two brothers who orchestrated it have gotten away far too easily and sadly, I fear this is not the last we see of things like this.
A bunch of different press outlets worldwide decided to show solidarity and their shared desire to not bow down in front of terrorists by reprinting a bunch of the cartoons which inspired the killers to do what they did. A bunch more didn’t. You may think I’m here to rail on all the ones that didn’t but I’m not. I understand it’s not a simple black and white decision to reprint something that divisive and in general, I respect any organisation that decides to not print them and can provide a solid justification as to why. I don’t agree with them but I respect their right as journalists to decide what they think is in the best interests of their readers. However, as you may have deduced from the title, I do take great exception with one particular news organisation’s reasons why, the taxpayer funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The CBC has been a hot button topic in Canada. Many people (typically on the opposing political spectrum of the government currently in power) think the CBC is an inefficient waste of taxpayer money that spews on propaganda for the sitting government and produces other content that no one else will because people largely don’t want to watch it. There are parts of that sentiment I share but when it comes to the news, I’ve defended them for a long time as one of the last bastion’s of what can be at least partially be called journalism in this country. Watch or listen to most of what passes for news elsewhere in Canada and you’ll see why. I listen to CBC Radio 1 in my car almost exclusively and hear a chunk of the morning and afternoon shows every day.
After announcing that they would not be republishing the Charlie Hebdo concerns, the CBC went into immediate damage control mode, almost like they knew a lot of people would be upset with them for it. On both Radio 1’s afternoon show and the next day on The Current, segments were held in which a man named David Studer, Director of Journalism Standards and Practices was brought on with the task of defending the crown corporation’s decision. Certainly not an enviable position to be in and I can imagine it was not easy or pleasant for him. Nonetheless, I take great exception to his weak attempts at rationalising their refusal to reprint these cartoons and worse still, to go on the offensive towards organisations that did. The CBC may not have been the only news organisation to use the reasoning he did but it’s the only one I’m aware of and it’s this reasoning that makes me want to take them to task.
To the credit of the hosts of both segments, they weren’t softball with Mr. Studer and on The Current, two other guests were present who strongly opposed his opinion. This is good because it was only after a lot of prying that he finally admitted to the actual reason for the decision. Most of the rest of his time was spent trying to dodge around that using a level of intellectual dishonesty that was beyond belief.
Here are some of his more choice responses. I don’t have transcripts of the segments so I’m paraphrasing but the core answers are accurate:
“We wouldn’t have published the cartoons the day before the massacre so why would we publish them the day after?” It was a different world the day after. Given that the terrorists stated the shootings were motivated by these cartoons, it makes sense to show them so people understand just how moronic said motivations were. I don’t think most of the other places that published them would have done so the day before either so what makes the CBC special? The CBC is not a newspaper and age-gating content or putting it behind a simple click filter with a warning and leaving it in the user’s hands to decide whether to view it is trivially easy.
“People don’t need to see the cartoons to understand the situation.” That’s up to the reader, not you. The only way I’ve heard the cartoons described is some variation of “They make fun of the prophet Muhammed.” That’s not even remotely helpful in conveying just how mundane they are and the goofy style of their presentation. The job of the news isn’t to provide a vague description and let people draw a mental picture. In fact, that’s the opposite of what the news is supposed to do. I had an idea of what the cartoons were. Then I saw them and it turns out my mental picture was way off. You can say the content’s offensive and that people concerned about it shouldn’t look but it’s not up to you to say that we don’t need to see it. People died because of it. Yes, we do.
“This is driven by spur of the moment emotion and/or business motivations.” Wow, way to throw a whole bunch of journalists under the bus there. I’ll be the first to say that proper journalism is dying in this world of clickbait and trial by social media but there are still pockets of people out there trying to report the news well. With this sentiment, you’re essentially saying that anyone who chose to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (likely after the same fierce internal debate you claimed the CBC had) did so purely out of anger and a desire to throw up double birds to the terrorists. It couldn’t be because they believe the public should see what these religious scumbags thought was worth murdering for. No no, it was just a visceral emotional response. No doubt some of the usual suspects used this as an opportunity for easy traffic, just like they would have done with something else. However, I think it’s incredibly smug and arrogant to think that they only did it for that reason.
“You don’t need to show a graphic crime scene to explain a murder so we don’t need to show the cartoons to explain this.” The scale of this false equivalence is so massive, I’m amazed the studio didn’t collapse into a black hole. You aren’t showing a graphic crime scene, you’re showing cartoons making fun of a religious figure. Those are two things they aren’t within a continent’s reach of each other. This isn’t asking to show the bodies gunned down by the terrorists. This isn’t even asking to show graphic cartoons. The whole point is that the cartoons are not graphic in any way, yet they still drove some religious nutjobs to mass murder.
All of these various jukes were countered and Mr. Studer finally stated the real reason: The CBC didn’t want to offend Muslims. He didn’t say that they were worried about retaliation being taken against the 99.9% of Muslims that are not violent extremists (retaliation that is sadly happening anyway), he said that they didn’t want to offend them. That someone will be offended and you’ll hear from them about it is possibly the worst reason for a supposedly journalistic institution to not run content.
I’ll put this bluntly: I don’t give a damn if anyone gets offended by the cartoons and a journalist shouldn’t either. When it comes to comedy, there are nor should there be anything that can’t be satirised. People have a right to be offended about whatever they want but I’m sick of this growing belief that people have a guaranteed right to never be offended about anything. They don’t. I see things all the time that offend me. Some of them even offend me enough to need to write something here or send an e-mail. However, not once have I ever said that an organisation shouldn’t be able to produce what they want (especially in the interests of informing the public) because it offends me. If you see a piece of content that offends you, you are free to say something about it and you are also free to turn your damn head and not consume it. That should be the extent of your power as a consumer. I’m a proud Athiest but I have nothing against anyone else wanting to believe in whatever religion they want. Where that crosses the line is when you start saying that someone should not be allowed to produce something because rather than just turning it off, that no one should be able to see it because it offends you. I don’t care what belief system you subscribe to, you can fuck right off if that’s what you think.
Journalism isn’t about what’s offensive or what isn’t, it’s about what’s true. What’s true is that a bunch of evil people driven by their religion, gunned down a bunch of innocents over cartoons that offended them so much, they felt murder was justified. I think when telling that story to the public, giving them the means to see the cartoons is key to them being optimally informed about it. Again, I can respect an organisation’s decision to not run the cartoons for any number of reasons, even if I disagree with them. If the CBC has just straight up said “We don’t want to offend Muslims.”, I would have strongly disagreed but still respected that decision.
Where I take exception is when people like Mr. Studer make smarmy excuses for why they didn’t and then to actually have the gall to call out other organisations that did and question their journalistic motivations. Let us not forget that the CBC had no problem running multiple, intentionally one-sided hit pieces against gamer culture, likely to avoid even the appearance of siding with a movement ignorantly labelled as anti-women so soon after the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Not wanting to offend easily offended religious people is a straight up cowardly reason for not showing the cartoons. However, all you had to do was state it, say that was your final decision and move on. To go on the air, get up on your high horse and use transparent, intellectually dishonest arguments to question the integrity of organisations that did reeks of hubris and I think did no help to sway anyone to your side.
It’s no secret that the CBC is fighting for its life under a government that would like nothing more than to see it crumble and redirect it’s funding to Sun News Network instead. I have and will continue to defend the CBC’s right to exist and flourish with my money. But dammit if situations like this and the responses of people like Mr. Studer aren’t making that harder by the day.