Editors and publishers around the world this week have been faced with a now too-familiar dilemma: Should they re-publish the cartoon images that undoubtedly provoked the murder by Islamic terrorists of 12 people at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo? Who could forget that in 2005, over 50 people died during protests after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran cartoons that some Muslims deemed blasphemous? And I couldn’t help but wonder, in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy: Would my response be different had the threats against the producers and even patrons of The Interview resulted in death and mayhem at the hands of extremists offended by that Sony film’s content?
Floyd Abrams, the country’s pre-eminent First Amendment lawyer, has a long history of representing the New York Times, beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision upholding the right of the Times and the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers. On Friday, however, he joined the chorus of readers attacking the Times for failing to publish the cartoons that led to the slaughter in France: “To the Editor:” Abrams wrote,
The decision of The New York Times to report on the murders in Paris of journalists who worked for Charlie Hebdo while not showing a single example of the cartoons that led to their executions is regrettable. There are times for self-restraint, but in the immediate wake of the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory, you would have served the cause of free expression best by engaging in it.
The Times was hearing similar cries of outrage from other quarters as well. Margaret Sullivan, who as the paper’s Public Editor moderates complaints and discussion over news coverage at the Times, wrote in her blog that Jeff Jarvis, a City University professor and expert on all things media in the digital age, also protested:
“If you’re the paper of record, if you’re the highest exemplar of American journalism, if you expect others to stand by your journalists when they are threatened, if you respect your audience to make up its own mind, then dammit stand by Charlie Hebdo and inform your public. Run the cartoons.”
Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Sullivan he had changed his mind twice on the matter before deciding against publishing the images. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well,” he argued, “that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.” That decision appears to have been as unsatisfactory to Sullivan as it was to many Times readers: “The Times undoubtedly made a careful and conscientious decision in keeping with its standards,” she blogged. “However, given these events — and an overarching story that is far from over—a review and reconsideration of those standards may be in order in the days ahead.”
The Times was hardly alone in deciding to cover the murders without showing the images that prompted them. In the U.S., the Associated Press chose not to move the images on its wire, which feeds hundreds of newspapers. Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron told his own media reporter that policy prevented him from printing material “that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups.” Fred Hiatt, that paper’s editorial page editor, on the other hand, did publish one of the cartoons, a 2011 cover depicting Muhammad with a caption that read, in French, “100 Lashes If You Don’t Die Laughing.” “I think seeing the cover will help readers understand what this is all about,” he told reporter Paul Farhi.
Across Europe, as in the U.S., news outlets expressed unqualified sympathy for the victims and outrage over the murders — while also refraining from publishing the offending images. The Internet overflowed with powerful and moving responses by the global community of cartoonists to the tragedy, asserting the power of an independent press and freedom of expression. But none was likely to offend in the deliberate way that satirical publications like Charlie Hebdo regard as their mission.
Some pundits warned against seeing the murders as representative of Islamic thinking today — Nicholas Kristof in a Times Op-Ed, for example, wrote that “the vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks, except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism.” But others surgically dissected such thinking. “The murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear,” New Yorker writer George Packer blogged in a brilliant essay that came out shortly after the attack.:
The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend — against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.
That powerful sentiment was reflected in the outpouring of responses by cartoonists around the world, expressing not only grief over the deaths of their colleagues but also outrage that such a clash of cultures could have such a violent impact. The Sony hack and the threats regarding The Interview prompted some soul searching over how free people must respond to hate-fueled violence. So far, those debates have thankfully remained in the realm of the theoretical. The bloodflow in Paris, on the other hand, left nightmare images more chillingly enduring and more horrific than any cartoonist could ever imagine.
(Images reproduced from global publications were first gathered by The Daily Beast.)