Monday, January 26, 2015

Two points on the local aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

On the one hand, Mayor Karl Dean refused to attend the predominantly African American town hall meeting in North Nashville last August focused on local apprehensions and tensions in the wake of the Ferguson, MO protests over the shooting of Mike Brown. On the other hand, Hizzoner made every effort to attend a predominantly white rally this month called by the "honorary French consul" in Nashville to protest the shooting at Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

Photo credit: Sister Cities of Nashville
I don't even know what an honorary French consul does, but she only pulled together 75 people for her rally. Hundreds packed into Mount Zion Baptist Church last August.

As he co-captained the rally and march with Amélie de Gaulle, Monsieur Dean told the press:

When basic freedoms are attacked, when journalists pay with their lives for exercising their profession, for speaking out, for exercising their right to give their opinions, citizens can't walk comfortably.

So, basic freedoms matter in France, but not in the protests of Ferguson, MO? Not in the press coverage of the suppression of protest against St. Louis County police? Not for a Nashville community shaken by the brutal responses to Black Lives Matter?

The contrast in the Hizzoner's selective attendance of protests points to the reality once again, that Karl Dean prefers not to be the mayor of all of Nashville, but to play the plenipotentiary for the local aristocracy.


There has been remarkable reaction to the Tennessean's choice of editorials on terrorism in France. I want to focus on one that has not received much attention. A little over a week ago the paper's vice president, Stephanie Murray wrote a column that can be easily reduced to three points:

  1. "The Tennessean strives to protect free speech and the First Amendment every single day. It is our duty. And it is our passion."
  2. "But at the end of the day, we work for you. We work to ensure democracy is an open process with citizen input. We strive to hold officials accountable."
  3. "And that’s part of the reason why today, I ask for your subscription. Please help support quality journalism in Middle Tennessee by purchasing The Tennessean."
We have heard this kind of logic before. George W. Bush told Americans to exercise their freedom and support their country by "going shopping." In the Tennessean's case, Stefanie Murray encourages the further commercialization of constitutional freedom in the purchase of her company's product. It's not that far removed from telling us to go shopping.

Mainstream, corporate journalism acts like it should enjoy a special place (remember "the 4th estate"?), but also it also treats its content as a product sold in the marketplace, even as it pays its labor force very little for the value they add. For all of their self-promotion as being community-minded and dedicated to open process, back in 2007, the local papers trotted out lawyers and PR flacks to blunt organized neighborhood dissent to their mythology that the First Amendment guarantees long, cluttered rows of unregulated news racks.

If they really wanted to support the democratic process, they would not bring in legalistically-minded professionals and lobbyists, but would negotiate and compromise with citizens directly on the commercialization of information. Instead, mainstream journos tend to confuse the grey zone of commerce with the unalienable right to transparency, fair dealing and openness.

Black's Law Dictionary defines unalienable rights as those rights "incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred." So, how is it that our freedom of speech hinges on the purchase of a commercial product, in this case an advertising circular moonlighting as a newspaper? And frankly, if you buy without question the logic that Tennessean reporters and editors exercise freedom beyond the reach of political influence of their Gannett corporate check-signers, then you have already surrendered your freedom of critical thought to self-delusion.

Money exercises influence. Public relations sugarcoats that influence. Wealth may not be able to threaten freedoms as provocatively and visibly as terrorism, but may erode them more persistently, more efficiently and more effectively.

And frankly, it is a smarmy hucksterism to use a tragedy so explicitly to sell more papers. There is too much at stake in the historic struggle to defend freedoms to fall for Ms. Murray's sales pitch.

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