Today there is only one thing a journalist could want to write about. The Charlie Hebdo massacre has shaken a profession that certainly never saw itself as immune from violence or intimidation, but perhaps saw those threats as, in the main, residing abroad. In a way it is our 9/11 – far-off terrorism, once something visited just on the brave few who parachuted themselves into combat zones, now brought home to a Western institution and its individuals, with deadly force.
But for all those similarities, and as shocking as the attack was, it couldn’t possibly provoke as severe a mentality shift as 9/11 did for the US public. For Americans, before 2001, terrorism was something that affected soldiers (the USS Cole) or embassies (the Kenya and Tanzania bombings), with civilians only targeted in random lone-wolf outbursts (such as Oklahoma City). On 9/11 we all learned to be on our guard for more attacks in the heartland.
Today’s events feel, in retrospect, like the inevitable culmination of recent horrors. European journalists have been attacked for their depictions of Mohammed before, and indeed the Charlie Hebdo offices were bombed in 2011. Last year militants in the Middle East made journalists a prime target, the beheadings themselves a gruesome and manipulative media message. But if we’ve had clues we might be headed this way, those bread crumbs haven’t softened the brutal shock of today’s events, or the dread over what might happen next. The fear among many journalists, I suspect, is that this is the new normal – that journalism, long a dangerous profession, will be more so and its dangers will be less predictable.
As one of this profession it’s also hard to shake off the cumulative, censorial weight that now seems to press down on us: not just this murderous attempt to silence free speech, but also the apparent attempts by North Korean hacks to prevent release of Sony’s film The Interview. And just days ago, PEN International released findings that 34 percent of writers in “free countries” have avoided – or have considered avoiding – writing or speaking on particular topics due to fear of government surveillance. For partly free countries, the figure was 44 percent; for “not free” countries, 61 percent.
“Censorship” used to be something your own government attempted, or perhaps powerful corporations. Now it’s other countries. Now it’s stateless militants (whose methods include not just violence but hacking, as the Albuquerque Journal and Maryland CBS affiliate WBOC discovered yesterday). Now it’s organizations that look like private companies or NGOs, but are actually organized by governments, as Philip Bennett and Moises Naim describe in a timely Columbia Journalism Review article.
Of course journalists have always been a defiant bunch. They have to be. Half of us seem to have got into the profession because we like to thumb our noses at authority – and no less so when that authority’s got a Kalishnikov and a pseudo-religious zeal. Just last night I was chuckling to myself thinking about the editors of the Frederick (Md.) News-Post, who laughed off a self-righteous and delusional diktat from local council member Kirby Delauter, who had ordered the paper to seek permission before publishing his name. Naturally, the paper’s response was an editorial that used his name dozens of times – even as an acrostic.
The piece reflected so much that I love about journalism: tireless commitment to freedom of speech. Irreverence. Good humor. Even – imagine it – commitment to principle. (Yes, most journalists still have it, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.) “They’ve risen to the occasion,” I thought. I couldn’t imagine, the next morning, how those principles would be tested again. But I don’t doubt that the world’s courageous journalists will continue to rise to the challenge.