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 Rights, Responsibilities, and Journalism

When fundamentalism and free speech clash, the result is never pretty. Such has been the furor over the cartoons a Danish paper published last September that depicted the Prophet Muhammed, among other things, with a bomb for a turban, with protests by enraged Muslims turning violent around the world. (According to a report on NPR, people are reacting to the cartoons now only because some Danish clerics distributed a package to their colleges throughout the world containing copies of the cartoons, plus some more strongly offensive ones that weren’t published.)

The intensity of the controversy within the media about the right thing to do here surprises me a little, though I imagine that Chris Judd on NewsBusters (a site devoted to “exposing liberal media bias,” but that doesn’t exempt them from sometimes getting their analysis right) got it partially right when he said that part of the problem is that neither side—the cartoonists or the protestors—are particularly politically correct.

Still, I think many people would agree with me on a few basic principles: Violence in response to the cartoons is absurd and unforgivable, incompatible with any kind of a democratic free world. It’s awfully hypocritical of societies, papers, and leaders who have condoned similarly offensive cartoons about Jews to complain when the tables are turned. And, the cartoons themselves are pretty lame, without any apparent political purposes other than to be inflammatory. (This latter point could perhaps be debated. I usually come down on the side of seeing a value, for example, in satire, even pretty offensive satire, if it shakes people out of their established thought patterns. As far as I can see, however, these cartoons just reinforced an entrenched and unsubtle bias.)

I would hope that our feelings about freedom of the press are not so deadened that it is controversial to say that the paper had a right to run them. I would also hope that our interest in free exchange of ideas and the role of the press to make people think rather than inflame inter-group hatred would also make it not too controversial to say that people would also be reasonable in questioning the original paper’s judgment in running them. Those two things are not incompatible. It can’t be repeated enough that the idea of freedom of speech means nothing until it is applied to speech we find distasteful.

What has gotten weirder has been the second generation of fights over whether other publications should reprint the cartoons. Right-wingers have called upon newspapers around the world to reprint the cartoons as showing that the press is actually free, and willing to make fun of Islam as well as Christianity. The editorial staff of the New York Press resigned over the decision of the publisher to drop the cartoons themselves from an editorial package about them, while other editors have been forced to resign for choosing to go ahead and run them, and student papers running them have been recalled and destroyed.

What gets me about the reaction to the reprint issue is the near absence of discussion of context. It reminds me of the controversy when David Horowitz tried to place lengthy Holocaust-denying ads in student papers across the country. The decision to accept the ads or not was frequently painted as black-and-white, absent any discussion of the papers’ existing policies on ad content (do they actually have a policy of accepting all advertisers?) and how they put the ad in context (did they, for example, run an editorial taking apart his ridiculous propositions point by point?).

Similar questions need to be asked here: Are the cartoons being reprinted as part of an editorial package exploring the reactions to them? (The cartoons have indeed become news in their own right after all, and so the public may have a right to judge them for themselves.) Are they being reprinted out of some sense of solidarity with papers under attack for printing offensive content? Are they being reprinted out of obstreperousness and glee at being as controversial as possible? (Though this doesn’t apply in this case, I agree with our editor that if they had showed up as a regular installment of a cartoonist a paper regularly ran, that too would be a different question from seeking them out on purpose.)

I don’t know that I would say any of the above are necessarily reasons they should be printed, nor would I rule any of them out as completely invalid, but they are all very different animals, and should each be examined and debated in their own right.

It also matters whether they are being run unquestioningly alongside editorial that paints all Muslims as terrorists, or being run with explanations of why they have upset people and how they may or may not be accurate depictions of Islam overall.

Like everyone else in a free society, or in fact more so, the media have an obligation to balance rights and responsibilities and think about the consequences of their actions. Free speech is such a basic requirement to enable a press that means anything and has any chance of telling the truth to exist that sometimes defending it must trump concerns of sensitivity. But that doesn’t mean sensitivity should be ignored. Indulging in base stereotyping for no reason destroys journalism’s credibility—something nearly as much in danger as freedom of speech.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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