The Charlie Hebdo murders: What I told my journalism students

The guns were aimed at artists and writers, but they weren’t the ultimate targets.

Also read Bob Hicks’s “Je suis Charlie? Oui, even here” on ArtsWatch.

Every now and then, we journalists are reminded why what we do matters. For you, it’s happening at the beginning of your first journalism class.

Stéphane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Bernard Maris,  Philippe Honoré,  Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, Mustapha Ourad, Michel Renaud, Elsa Cayat.

In Paris today, there are mothers missing their sons, brothers and sisters who will never see their siblings again, children who have lost their parents. Along with three other innocent people, nine defenseless journalists (writers, editors, cartoonists, staffers — some elderly, all unarmed and peaceful) are dead because some brutal cowards thought that what they did was important enough to kill them for it. And, because those journalists knew they were threatened, they thought it was important enough to die for it.

jesuis

In fact, yesterday’s attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are only a small part of a larger story. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 61 journalists were killed last year, and that the last three years have been the deadliest for journalists since the organization started tracking them.

Most of those attacks on journalists’ life and liberty are perpetrated not by terrorists but by states, whether in Syria, Russia, Iraq, China, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, even in the US — ask Jim Risen, the New York Times reporter who still faces prison for his prize winning exposes against abuse of state power. State sponsored or otherwise (like yesterday’s), attacks on journalists are often aimed at achieving political goals, like the the ISIS beheadings or the 9/11 attacks designed to sow opposition to American policy by taunting stupid American politicans to retaliate with unreasoned brutality — and they obligingly accommodated the script. The Paris murders were designed to intimidate and polarize the European Islamic community, placing its members in the perilous position of denouncing murder without endorsing Charlie’s most outrageous provocations. In all these attacks on journalists and others, the attackers used innocents’ lives as the means to achieve a political objective.

So even though we mourn them, the artists and writers those murderers slaughtered weren’t the ultimate intended victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The massacre wasn’t only about attacking journalists, any more than the September 11 attacks were entirely aimed at bringing down skyscrapers.

In fact, many of those who protested yesterday’s atrocities called them an assault on something larger than a few journalists — on free expression, on the ideals we might have imagined were sanctified three or four hundred years ago, summarized in the credo, often erroneously attributed to another Frenchman, Voltaire, that he might disagree with what you say but he’ll defend to the death your right to say it. Yesterday was a reminder that those ideas are so powerful that cowards and bullies, whose own ideas are too weak to triumph in a fair debate over their validity, are willing to kill people to oppose them, and have done so for all of human history.

hebdoBut I think even the idea of freedom of expression isn’t the ultimate intended victim of Paris. Because the value of journalism doesn’t finally reside in journalists’ ability to express ourselves. Journalism isn’t about journalists — it’s about the readers, viewers, listeners we serve. Our right to say something is really about your right to hear anything.

Whether your journalism career extends beyond this course or not, the ultimate victim of attacks on journalists is you. If you want to be able to learn what you want, to consider a variety of ideas and information and interpretations of that information, to make up your own mind about the world, then you are the victim when the people and publications that give you that information and interpretation are attacked and repressed. In that sense, we journalists are indeed means to an end: giving people what they need to think for themselves.

The killings in Paris were specifically intended to keep us — readers, viewers, listeners — from hearing and considering those journalists’ and artists’ point of view. Therefore, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, regardless of what we think of its ideas, are attacks on us — our right to hear different points of view and to make up our own minds, the freedom to learn and think what we want, without fear. That’s why Je Suis Charlie, not because I’m a journalist, but because I’m a human being.

That also means that we, not murderous ideologues, get to decide who wins this battle between thought control and freedom. We can contribute to the victory, most directly by helping protect and sustain the the people who bring us information and interpretation of that information. The Committee to Protect Journalists can tell you how to help.

You can also help by not succumbing to fear and instead continuing to seek out controversial and even challenging information. As the economists tell us, the more demand, the greater the supply, and the need for those who supply it.

I hope that some of you will also choose to become one of the journalists who stand for the same principle those in Paris died for. This class is a first step. And as just learned, what we study in it matters.

The families and friends of the nine journalists in Paris know that better than anyone now. And if you do continue in journalism, and someday find that what you’re writing doesn’t matter enough, then take the news writing skills you’ll learn here to places where it does matter. There will always be places for journalists who have the skill, smarts and courage to write about what matters. There are nine new openings today.

There will be more.

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