Grief Would Pale for U.S. Media Attack

At Thursday morning's Post-Gazette editorial board meeting, one of my colleagues made an interesting observation about the thousands of citizens who filled the streets of Paris to protest the murderous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

The photos of Parisians carrying signs proclaiming "Je Suis Charlie," in defiance of the carnage inflicted by masked killers thought to be Islamic extremists, made my colleague wonder if a similar outpouring of grief and solidarity would be possible in America if such an incident happened here.

It was a provocative question, though the answer is obvious. If there is ever -- God forbid -- a bloodbath at the headquarters of The New York Times or any major media operation here, there would certainly be outrage across American society, but there probably wouldn't be candlelight marches long into the night.

The sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans carrying signs proclaiming "I am CNN" or "I am Fox News" or "Huffington Post forever" is unimaginable. The kind of protest grief we see in Paris for the media might occur only if a couple of fanatics invaded Comedy Central to murder the staff of "The Daily Show," "South Park" and any lingering "Colbert Report" writers who haven't already decamped for CBS with their boss.

Those old enough to remember that humor magazine's entertaining mix of high-brow irreverence, religious skepticism, cheeky libertarianism and bawdy, sexy cartoons know what I'm talking about.

The comparisons of Charlie Hebdo to The Onion, Spy and Mad magazine are inevitable, but superficial. The truth is that we currently have nothing like Charlie Hebdo in the American marketplace. We're too respectful of political authority and too wary of offending religious sensibilities or upending racial taboos to even try.

A willingness to alienate religious and political groups isn't part of any American business model that I know of, but the French are comfortable with it. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they're an avowedly secular people and we're more religious and deferential toward authority, making us more suspicious of satire.

Nothing undermines authority faster than laughter and irony.

If Americans find it difficult to appreciate homegrown iconoclasts like Mark Twain or the political cartoonists who provide irreverent content for our newspaper editorial pages every day, we could never deal with the anarchy unleashed by Charlie Hebdo, even as a weekly magazine.

Charlie Hebdo can only thrive in a culture that truly "gets" satire and understands that irreverence toward all institutions and individuals is the only way to ensure a democracy that is both self-critical and worth dying for.

That's why the French take the assault on the magazine's staff so personally. It goes way beyond the fact that 12 people were murdered by religious fanatics seeking to avenge an "insult" against the Prophet. The French consider the bloodshed on Wednesday an assault on every democratic value they hold dear, so their outrage is palpable and very public.

What's also remarkable is that Charlie Hebdo's circulation is under 100,000 weekly, yet people who probably don't read it regularly feel enough of a connection to what it represents to march in solidarity.

In fairness, I know I'm in no position to say unequivocally that Americans wouldn't rally in the streets just like the French if some journalistic institution here came under similar attack. It could be that I'm suffering from a failure of imagination and that the streets of every American city would be filled with outraged citizens who may not agree with everything a media organization writes, but would defend to the death its right to say it.

Perhaps I'm cynical because journalists here are dealing with a Justice Department more hostile and determined than ever to prosecute leakers who embarrass the government. This fact should cause more of a stir, but it doesn't.

Even as the Obama administration extends its condolences to the French people, American journalists are being dragged into federal court and hit with subpoenas to reveal their sources.

None of this is fatal, obviously, but it is a dispiriting irony of American life.

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