Waving the white flag

white flagGone are the days when journalists stood on principle.

American newspaper editors and ombudsmen scrambled together columns for their publications’ weekend editions explaining why they chose not to run images of the cartoons that have resulted in several death threats against journalists. The general consensus, according to my unscientific review, is that they were too offensive. For a more thorough listing of the columns than I will provide, check out Poynter’s Romenesko.

My favorite column from the weekend had to have been Tim Rutten over at the Los Angeles Times:

Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper’s art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili’s notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren’t as touchy as Muhammad’s.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with — you guessed it — one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn’t even blush.

Rutten then ripped into the hypocrisy of American newspapers, using the film version of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code as an example of how the media will not hesitate to jump all over a movie that distorts a major religion.

It all comes down to the Fatwa, doesn’t it? Christians don’t issue them, Muslims do.

Certainly, there should be reviews since this is a news event, though it would be a surprise if any of them had something substantive to say about these issues. But what about publishing feature stories, interviews or photographs? Isn’t that offensive, since they promote the film? More to the point, should newspapers and television networks refuse to accept advertising for this film since plainly that would be promoting hate speech? Will our editors and executives declare their revulsion at the very thought of profiting from bigotry?


News reports over the weekend revealed that certain Arab governments were behind the riots. How despicable is that? They even handed out copies of the cartoons. Now, why in the world would any media organization want to play into that type of strategy by publishing the cartoons, as blogger and columnist Andrew Sullivan insists that they do?

The answer is simple: reporters don’t concern themselves with what governments want when publishing content. Sure, publishing the cartoons in the United States would not have exactly calmed the situation in the Middle East and would have played into the hands of those seeking to incite the riots. But does that change the fact that they were legitimate news items that should be published?

As Sullivan said in a column in this week’s Sunday Times:

The fundamental job of journalists is to give you as much information as possible to make sense of the world around you.

surrenderAn Indianapolis Star column is a great example of the weak thinking going through the minds of the profit-focused leadership of American newspapers. As a longtime reader of that newspaper, I know a thing or two about its tradition of publishing legitimate news (disclaimer: I used to work there. See my bio for more details).

I was quite disappointed in Dennis Ryerson’s explanation for why the cartoons were not published:

Newspapers also have every right to be provocative in a truly free society. Indeed, many readers want us to be just that, so long, that is, as our provocation supports their point of view.

With that right come responsibilities.

The Star shouldn’t be in the business of promoting any religion or point of view in its news columns; we need to respect all religions and all views.

But our responsibility also is to avoid intentionally giving offense to a basic tenet of an entire religion, which is just what reprinting the controversial cartoons would do.

The column is fraught with mischaracterizations, starting with the assertion that publishing images of Muhammad violates a basic tenet of Islam — since when?

Ryerson writes, “It is sadly unfortunate that many people hold the Islamic faith, as opposed to Islamic extremists, as being responsible for world terrorism.” Actually, all of Islam is responsible in one way or another for the extremism. It is the responsibility of Muslims to rise up and dispel this myth. Some are thankfully trying.

Few times has the Indianapolis Star held back in publishing things that certain groups in the local community would have found offensive. I remember a highly publicized case of a photo of two women kissing. The newspaper lost 5,000 in subscriptions (ouch for a Gannett publisher). I also remember the publication of photos of barrels full of dead dogs (for a Humane Society story). People were traumatized and the Humane Society was reformed.

Remember the photos of the prison abuse scandals? The Washington Post used editorial discretion and did not run the photos that were most offensive, but they did run some. Remember the photos of dead Americans hanging from bridges?

All legitimate news that offended, created outrage and caused problems for one government or another. And all published. Why not now?

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  • http://shanewilkins.blogspot.com shane wilkins

    Honestly, i’ve been a little surprised at how pissed off the getreligion people seem to be about this issue. There seem to be two trains of thought going on here. 1.) “hey, we christians have been abused for years by blasphemous depictions of our holy symbols, so the MSM ought to publish the mohammed cartoons to abuse muslims too.” 2.) “Look how much more peaceful and civilized (american, evangelical) christians are than muslims.” There is something perverse about the first thought and something jingoistic and ridiculous about the second.

    I support the right to free speech, but mr. pulliam seems to be suggesting that the right to offend muslims = the duty to offend muslims, if only so that the media abuses all religious groups equally.

    I would also like to question Pulliam’s statement that “all of Islam is responsible in one way or another for the extremism.” This is a very interesting claim, but i’m not sure mr. pulliam would like to endorse all of its consequences.

    When a Christian blows up an abortion clinic and kills all the people inside are, you personally, Dan Pulliam, responsible ‘in one way or another’ for that? If so, in what way? Am i responsible for the influence of Martin Luther’s antisemitism on the holocaust? or for Torquemada? If not, then why is ‘all of islam’ responsible for Osama bin Laden, or for the King of Saudi Arabia inciting religious riots to deflect attention from his poor government?

    I think Hans Kung gets both Religion and Journalism much better than this website has on this particular question. link to Deutsch Welle


  • andy chamberlain

    I would guess, Daniel, that you know the answer to the question you pose at the end of this piece, but maybe it needs to be said. No editor wants to end up dead, no editor wants their family threatened, no one wants to have to live with that; and who can blame them? Certainly I don’t. By comparison it’s easy to “take it on the chin” and loose some sales, or have a few angry letters arrive, or even have a few people wave banners outside your offices – that in itself can be useful fuel for the story.

    I think one or two publiciations have been honest enough to say this, and credit to them for doing so; it’s a lot better than having to explain it as some sort of journalistic judgement.

    As I said, I don’t blame the editors, they are people with families after all.

    I few days ago I posted a deliberately provocative topic for discussion:

    “There is no reconciliation between Western Values and Islam – a major and violent conflict is inevitable”. Discuss. . . .

    What’s happened here is another move towards the absolute need for this debate, but for me personally, a more important questions is this
    “What is the church going to do if just such a conflict occurs?” My hope is that somewhere outthere some smart and Godly people and thinking and praying about this. How might we defend our gospel, and in doing so also defend and stand up for the Muslim victims of a violent Nazi mob?

    The media, on the whole, wont put their blood on the line, and again I do not blame them for it. For the church it may be a different story.

  • tmatt


    In the abortion clinic case, yes, the media does tend to blame the rest of the pro-life movement and expects it to do what it can to prevent similar actions in the future. GetReligion has been saying that the cartoon crisis points to a sharp division WITHIN Islam since day one and, also, that there is, in effect, a division within MODERATE Islam over the faith’s views of Western freedoms in general, such as the Bill of Rights. The clash is inside of Islam so, yes, Muslims will have to deal with it — especially in Europe and the West. The evidence is that the riots are being planned and fueled by totalitarian governments in the Arab world, however.

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam


    It’s not a matter of offending Muslims. It’s a matter of news value. These cartoons have caused riots across the world. What are these cartoons and can newspapers publish one or two of the less offensive ones?

    All Islam is responsible for terrorism done in its name in the sense that they must rise up and denounce this terrorism and work to shut it down.

  • Daniel

    Since the pictures are available widely to anyone with access to a computer, why is it so important that they also appear in every newspaper and magazine in the country? Seemingly, anyone who really wants to know what these cartoons say and look like can find them after 5 seconds of searching on the computer. How much news value is there to information that’s available so widely?

  • http://www.naamansword.blogspot.com James

    The Koran did not teach anything about images of the Prophet. These rules the Muslims are so upset about are man-made teachings, additional added revelations. We have suffered under these same types of anti-gospels for years in America and Christendom. The Southern White Christian still has a hard time reconciling the fact that the Biblical slavery is not the same slavery as ante-bellum slavery.
    The hardest thing for us Christians to understand is expontential additions to scripture. We have for years, rightly limited ourselves to the Holy Scriptures as they are in the Bible as it is. That sparks the debate among devotees as to whether we can stray from the KJV to other translations.

    I grew up in a strict Southern Baptist Church that used the KJV for many years, but I have seen the value of other translations for clarity in understanding, yet not as an addition or subtraction. It is hard for us to understand those that believe in additional revelation of any kind. We have problem with additional teachings of the Jewish Historians, Roman Historians, Greek Historians, Arab Historians, and now American Historians. Also, that is why we have a problem with the “name it and claim it” gospel of some of today’s “apostles”, it is not Scriptural!

    God does not intend us to do harm, period. If we must justify doing harm in any way it is not from God.
    The present administration dwells on its Christian background, yet it fails to move to the Christian Foreground. It remains stuck in the Old Testament teachings and neglects the teachings of the Prince of Peace and the New Testament. It mixes the conservative philosophy of the republican party with Christianity, rather than the opposite. Check the overall voting records of republicans in congress and as president, except than on abortion they fail miserably in Christian responsibility.

    We must protect our religous liberty by protecting our freedoms at home.

    “The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion, it will cease to be free for religion.” ~ Robert H. Jackson, Supreme Court Justice

  • Jacob

    I am surprised that nobody on this website seems to be talking about the Vatican’s response.

    They seem to be using this as an occasion to talk about civic responsiblity.

    I might also add that I am not sure what people are saying when they criticize the newspapers — besides that many are being hypocrites. Which of the following:

    (1) Running the cartoons is acceptable given that it has news value, independent of threats.
    (2) Running the cartoons is acceptable because doing otherwise would be to give in to threats.


  • Jeffrey Weiss

    The Dallas Morning News used this newfangled technology called the Internet to give our readers news without unintentional offense. We ran a story (mine) on Sunday. And we let our readers know that we were offering weblinks to the cartoons — AND to the collection of Aanti-Semitic cartoons and comments kept by ADL and MEMRI. On the dead tree paper we can’t guarantee that someone won’t turn the page and be offended. On the web, if you click the link, you know what you’re in for. So we give you the news and your own option as to whether you want to see the actual stuff. Wonderful thing, this Internet. Al Gore should be proud…1:-{)>

    Jeffrey Weiss
    The Dallas Morning News

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  • http://www.maintour.com/socal/lajolla.htm Roland

    While the world debates Free Speech and religious cartoons, no one says boo about that vast quantity of dirty pictures published by the Adult Entertainment Industry.

    Wouldn’t this count as a more gross violation of free speech? Stuff that this can be addictive and leads to physical abuse and break ups of the home and family. (And Google still claims they “Do No Evil”.)

    Just wait until the mainstream media picks up the great Google Scandle (they are the world’s largest index of dirty pictures).

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Just a thought–I wonder what would happen if some creative newspaper, instead of playing up the cartoon and violence stories, played the situation up as radical moslems trashing the founder of their faith–and then published the cartoons with appropriate headlines and an expose of the countries and radical mullahs who were printing and distributing the cartoons proving that these are the ones doing the real mass blaspheming of Mohammed, exploiting his image to gain political advantage and making fools of the “Arab Street” in the process.

  • Danny Kopp

    This is one of the best responses I’ve seen so far:


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    You’ve heard about the Iranian newspaper that’s put out a call for antisemitic cartoons? A group of Israeli cartoonists is responding by having their own contest for antisemitic cartoons!

    “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said [Amitai] Sandy “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

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  • Tom Breen

    “Gone are the days when journalists stood on principle.”

    That’s a little melodramatic, isn’t it? A few newspapers haven’t published a controversial cartoon, so now journalists don’t have principles anymore?

    This should make for interesting conversations with sources:

    “Mr. Mayor, I know I said those comments of yours were off the record, but the New York Times won’t publish a cartoon, so – gone are the days when I stood on principle.”

    I don’t know what GetReligion, Andrew Sullivan, and Co. think will happen if the Indianapolis Star publishes the cartoons. An outbreak of freedom in democracy in the Muslim world? The end of terrorism? How about “nothing”?

    My newspaper ran one of the cartoons and, despite our largely Muslim press room staff, there was no major dispute. Some of the Catholic reporters objected, that was all. I don’t know that the cartoon significantly contributed to anyone’s understanding of the issue.

    But does this mean I’m allowed to stand on principle?

  • Herb

    I agree with Tom; this is being blown out of proportion. Journalists want to report the news, not become a news item themselves. Besides, if it isn’t the cartoons, it will be something else. Islamic extremism is a boiling cauldron, and it doesn’t take much of anything to set it off.

    And lest the evangelicals among us forget, Saul of Tarsus was also an extremist, who thought he was pleasing God by his actions, and reacting forcefully to a perceived destruction of “righteous living”. I’m not condoning Muslim extremist actions, but I wonder sometimes if those who have no religious zeal whatsoever are really as great as they think they are. Has man really evolved further upward?

  • Daniel

    With all this talk about principles, where is the handwringing about free speech about the lack of coverage of the Abu Gharib prisoner photos. People are being singled out for torture and humiliation because of their religious and political beliefs, yet no one is waiving the white flag and accusing the press of cowardice.

    Is it only a free speech issue when Muslims are portrayed as evil and not as victims?