The courage of our cartoon convictions

We’ve written before about cartoon controversies at the Washington Post. There was this anti-Pentecostal cartoon from 2008. And then there was his anti-Israeli cartoon depicting a fanged Star of David being pushed by a headless, goosestepping soldier. Subtle.

But while the Washington Post has run those cartoons, they’re in a spot of trouble for a cartoon they didn’t run this week. Playing off of the “Where’s Waldo” books, “Non Sequitur” cartoonist Wiley Miller depicted a vibrant park scene with people and animals frolicking about. The text above the picture reads “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher . . . ” And below the picture, the answer: “Where’s Muhammad?”

Considering the sensitivities surrounding the depiction of Muhammad, the cartoon was well executed for maximum provocation with minimum outrage.

But that doesn’t mean that the Washington Post printed it. And they weren’t alone — neither did the Los Angeles Times nor the San Francisco Chronicle. Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander was displeased. He devoted his Sunday column to the subject:

What is clever about last Sunday’s “Where’s Muhammad?” comic is that the prophet does not appear in it.

Still, Style editor Ned Martel said he decided to yank it, after conferring with others, including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, because “it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.” He added that “the point of the joke was not immediately clear” and that readers might think that Muhammad was somewhere in the drawing.

Some readers accused The Post of censorship. “Cowards,” e-mailed John D. Stackpole of Fort Washington, one of several who used that word.

Miller is fuming. The award-winning cartoonist, who lives in Maine, told me the cartoon was meant to satirize “the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons,” as well as “media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that contains the word ‘Muhammad.’”

“The wonderful irony [is that] great newspapers like The Washington Post, that took on Nixon . . . run in fear of this very tame cartoon, thus validating the accuracy of the satire,” he said by e-mail.

The column itself is well written. Alexander explains that the cartoon accidentally ran on the The Post website and that the paper ran a similar cartoon by Miller during the 2006 Danish cartoon riots that left over 100 people dead. That earlier cartoon showed a street artist next to a sign that said, “Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!” He ends his column by saying that the paper’s decision “can be seen as timid. And it sets an awfully low threshold for decisions on whether to withhold words or images that might offend.”

Timid is a pretty timid word to use for this censoring. It’s the same word Los Angeles Times media columnist James Rainey used when he complained ever so mildly about his paper’s refusal to publish the cartoon. In fact, he went out of his way to say he disagreed with those who have called the refusal to run the comic “a cowardly retreat from radicals.” He says that what others see as cowardice, he sees as expediency. He quotes from the Washington Post ombudsman piece and adds the perspective of a few other papers:

The Boston Globe had a similar complaint. Deputy managing editor Christine Chinlund said via e-mail: “When a cartoon takes on a sensitive subject, especially religion, it has an obligation to be clear. The ‘Where’s Muhammad’ cartoon did not meet that test. It leaves the reader searching for clues, staring at a busy drawing, trying to discern a likeness, wondering if the outhouse at the top of the drawing is significant — in other words, perplexed.”

Said Alice Short, an L.A. Times assistant managing editor: “If they had produced a ‘Non Sequitur’ cartoon that said ‘Where’s Jesus?’ I probably wouldn’t have wanted to run that either.”

But if the newspaper editors went about the business of killing less than A-plus work, the comic pages would have many blank spots every day. The result would be the same if they always leaned over backward to cater to the most sensitive among us.

I wonder, does anyone in the world believe Alice Short’s comment? When I read that quote, I put my fist up to my mouth and then coughed out “bullhockey.” Matt Welch over at Reason says the same in his post ““Just Admit it, Newspapers: You’re Scared of Muslims”.”

Thought-provoking is good. Needless provocation is not. This cartoon — which you can see here — is in the former category.

So what do you think? Is the free press doomed if we can’t run inoffensive cartoons that don’t depict Muhammad?

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  • Perpetua

    I think it is important to include the title of the cartoon, “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher … ” , in these stories. The cartoon is exactly commenting on the publishing issue, so it is ironic that even this is deemed offensive.

    Re: cowardice and timidity. Maybe this is really a legal issue? I do wonder if legal departments are involved in these decisions. If the publishing organizations building was attacked, couldn’t traumatized employees or their survivors successfully sue the organization for putting them at risk? Also maybe insurance companies would even challenge the idea they should pay costs of repair/replacement of the physical plant because they could show reckless disregard?

    If I am right that this is a legal risk issue about who would be held responsible if an attack occurred, maybe we need laws protecting organizations that take these risks?

  • bill

    I emailed the editor of the Indianapolis Star, asking why they didn’t run the cartoon. I was told that they did not need to give a reason since hardly anybody noticed that they chose not to run it.
    It seemed ironic, because in the previous week they had run two comics that intentionally provoked Christians.

  • Bible Belt Blogger

    Journalism big wigs are more afraid of irate Muslims than they are of irate Christians.

  • Chris

    Perpetua is right. Wiley’s point is clear and the reaction of editors is an ironic vindication of his point. It would have been interesting to see if the Wahabist Muslims who made such a fuss over the Danish cartoons would have done so over Wiley’s. Or would they have had the presence of mind to ignore it, realizing that any reaction could only make them look foolish?

    It does look like there is a definite difference between blaspheming Christianity and blaspheming Islam in the eyes of the media. How does this relate to Rick Sanchez’s firing over expressing anti-Semitism?

  • Dave

    Is the free press doomed if we can’t run inoffensive cartoons that don’t depict Muhammad?

    In the present atmosphere a cartoon that mentions Muhammed (PBUH) without depicting him has a potential to produce an out-of-proportion, possibly lethal violent reaction. The free press may be in peril, but not from non-threats.

    It would have been interesting to see if the Wahabist Muslims who made such a fuss over the Danish cartoons would have done so over Wiley’s.

    Street violence and possible deaths of American troops overseas are a bit more than “interesting.”

  • SDG

    I have a degree in cartooning. The point of the cartoon is crystal clear — and the editors who claimed not to get it made the point clear by doing exactly what the cartoon is about. Talk about irony you could cut with a knife … or a censor’s scissors.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It isn’t just that the mass media is only too frequently willing to print insulting and derogatory cartoons about Christianity. It is also that when Christians complain they are usually given a First Amendment lecture by the same hypocrites who are only too willing to indirectly disembowel our freedoms by their cowardice.

  • Jerry

    I’d like to hear from newspaper that did run the cartoon including what reactions, if any, they observed.

    He says that what others see as cowardice, he sees as expediency.

    So he’s saying that they have no moral or ethical principles rather than that they refused to courageously stand up for they believe. That, in itself, says volumes about them.

  • Jettboy

    To be honest, it would have been more understandable if he had depicted all the stereotypical and offensive images of other religious leaders and icons. That said, I don’t believe the newspapers reasoning for why they didn’t print them. That is OK I guess. Its not like very many people read the printed news anymore; a positive step toward more freedoms.

  • Ben

    I agree the cartoon should have ran. But I think this meme of the fearful press is getting a bit out of control. Some American newspapers still station reporters overseas in dangerous regions and they take on risks that would be too great for many folks. American reporters still do uncover the wrongdoings of powerful people, something that in the abstract sounds like no big deal but can at times be frightening.

  • Jay

    While Ben has an important point about overseas reporters, the pre-emptive capitulation is just another sign of American elites surrendering to evil. Just ask Judea Pearl, who understands the problem better than anyone.

  • Jettboy

    “American reporters still do uncover the wrongdoings of powerful people,” like who?

  • Dave

    Like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jettboy, which is covering the nibs out of a federal investigation of corruption in Cuyahoga County. The PeeDee pored over the initial disclosures and identified folks indicated at the time only as “Public Offical #1″ and “Public Official #2″ — a County Commissioner and the County Auditor. Readers were so disgusted they voted in an entirely different struture with one executive, district council members, and officials like the auditor getting appointed rather than elected.