“There’s no justification for violence. But…”
“I’m a First Amendment absolutist. But…”
“You have every right to do what you did. But…”
Though perhaps not verbatim, those are the sentiments that have spilled from cable airwaves — and, for that matter, non-cable airwaves — in the days since Sunday’s violent incident in Garland, Tex. Two gunmen were shot dead by a police officer as they attempted to mount a terrorist attack on a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest — an event whose by-product is offensive to many Muslims. The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for targeting the contest, which was organized by Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI).
Authorities are investigating ISIS’s claim of responsibility; they’re checking the electronic communication histories of the attackers, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi; the White House has called the episode an “attempted terrorist attack.”
And who’s being treated as the public enemy on cable? The woman who organized a cartoon contest.
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, in speaking with a guest: “This is problematic to me, because I wonder whether this group that held this event down there to basically disparage and make fun of the prophet Muhammad doesn’t in some way cause these events. Well, not the word ‘causing’ — how about provoking, how about taunting, how about daring? How do you see the causality factor here?” (Taunting is a form of expression)
Donald Trump on “Fox & Friends”: “What is she doing drawing Mohammed?…What are they doing drawing Muhammad. Isn’t there something else they can draw?…I’m the one who believes in free speech probably more than she does, but what’s the purpose of this?” (Must protected speech have a Trump-approved purpose?)
Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore: “You know another thing that’s horrific, Pamela Geller? Intentionally putting innocent, unarmed security guards in danger so you can make some bull[—-] free speech argument.” (A bad moment: When comedians are rating others’ free-speech arguments)
Fox News host Martha MacCallum to Geller: “I absolutely get where you’re coming from. I’m not sure you went about it the right way.” (Let the government decide on the “right way”!)
CNN host Alisyn Camerota to Geller: “And nobody is saying that this warrants the violence that you saw. I mean I haven’t heard anyone in the media saying that it’s okay for gunmen to show up at an event like this. But what people are saying is that there’s always this fine line, you know, between freedom of speech and being intentionally incendiary and provocative.” (Provocative — we surely wouldn’t accuse Camerota of such a crime.)
CNN’s Jake Tapper to Geller: “Nothing justifies the attack, the violent attack. There is no justification, but I do want to ask you about your reasons for holding the event, if you’ll permit me. Charlie Hebdo ran a magazine in the name of satire and criticism and the magazine continues to attack every religion, every political party, all sorts of leaders. What was the purpose of holding an event that specifically focused on the prophet Muhammad?” (New standard: To satirize Islam, you must show a record of satirizing other religions).
Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren: “It’s one thing for someone to stand up for the First Amendment and put his own you-know-what on the line, but here, those insisting they were defending the First Amendment were knowingly putting officers’ lives on the line — the police.” (Taxpayers hire cops to protect their freedoms)
To her enduring credit, Fox News’s Megyn Kelly has been screaming all week about the folly of the “too-provocative” crowd.
Cable news personalities are hired to ask tough questions, and so these folks were doing their jobs in pressing Geller. Yet the unspoken message they send with this line of inquiry is one of suppression — that what Geller and her invitees were doing was wrong, provocative, naughty, stupid and downright unnecessary. Some pundits used those very words or a mixture of them.
This strain of thought speaks to the power of precedent. In January, terrorists carried out a massacre of the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, a publication that had compiled a record of depicting Muhammad in satirical ways. The attack, per force, elevated the newsworthiness of those cartoons: There was no way to fully understand the alleged motivations of the attackers without sampling the drawings that had placed a target on the magazine.
Yet the American media folded into a crouch of cowardice and rationalization. The Associated Press’s statement said it would “refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” The major networks stayed away from the pictures, and the cable networks followed suit, for the most part, with Fox News showing glimpses here and there. CNN said it was withholding the images as a measure to protect its personnel in overseas hotspots. (In the immediate aftermath of the attack, The Washington Post’s news side didn’t traffic in the images, though the editorial side published one on its op-ed page.)
At the time, those decisions appeared isolated to the news event at hand. They now loom as something far more significant. A judgment has emerged that preaches compliance with the notion that this particular form of expression means you’re asking for it. That viewpoint has trickled down from the bosses of these news organizations into the coverage, as Geller has discovered. Once the media draws a line, it’s tough to undraw.