Just Asking, Did Lucky Bill Bennett Push For Papers To Show Pics of Piss Christ?

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Thanks to a little birdy, I was made aware of morals czar Bill Bennett's op-ed in today's Wash Post. Improbably writing with torture zealot Alan Dershowitz, everybody's favorite slots maniac discoursed thusly:

For the past month, the Islamist street has been on an intifada over cartoons depicting Muhammad that were first published months ago in a Danish newspaper. Protests in London—never mind Jordan, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Iran and other countries not noted for their commitment to democratic principles—included signs that read, "Behead those who insult Islam." The mainstream U.S. media have covered this worldwide uprising; it is, after all, a glimpse into the sentiments of our enemy and its allies. And yet it has refused, with but a few exceptions, to show the cartoons that purportedly caused all the outrage.

BB and the Dersh rightly label the media's general unwillingness to post the pics as "a failure of the press" and note that "radical Islamists…have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons." Whole bit here. I agree with Bennett and Dershowitz's general point that the media in the U.S. tends to goes softer in the clinches than Gerry Cooney in an undercard bout.

Fair enough. As Reason's own Tim Cavanaugh put it just the other day, "American newspapers have sped up their mad dash to irrelevance by declining to show the most newsworthy images of the past six months."

But speaking of newsworthy images that got little pictoral play in the mainstream media back in the day, I'm curious to know whether Bennett felt the same way about Andres Serrano much-declaimed, little-viewed "Piss Christ" or Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary", to mention two controversial works that offended the Bennetts of the world? Did he push to have those images disseminated so that people could fully understand what was at stake?

Indeed, how many papers ran shots of those works, I wonder (as do others in the press)? I don't remember seeing them in the pages of many papers. While I think newspapers have been craven this time around, that's nothing new, really. Seriously, who looks for newspapers–or most large circulation glossies–to actually be a place where possible offense is given? For every graphic shot of Abu Ghraib (and we were "spared" the very worst shots by the MSM, weren't we?) or marshmallow-friendly Buddhist monks in Life, there are dozens of omissions, dodges, and euphemisms. (One of my more recent-favorites of the latter category came in a dreadful Washington Post Magazine story about Jessica Cutler, a.k.a. dirty blogger Washingtonienne: One of her amours, the Post reported, "wanted a kind of sex that physically hurt Jessica.")

Few things are more annoying the media's ongoing love affair with itself as the bulwark of American freedom–a pose that falls apart whenever the going gets tough at all. But it's a mug's game to think that's going to change any time soon.

NEXT: Huff Post Pee Break: Stuart Smalley Can't Save His Family From the Tragedy of the Commons

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  1. ? But speaking of newsworthy images that got little pictoral play in the mainstream media back in the day, I’m curious to know whether Bennett felt the same way about Andres Serrano much-declaimed, little-viewed “Piss Christ” or Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary”, to mention two controversial works that offended the Bennetts of the world? Did he push to have those images disseminated so that people could fully understand what was at stake? ?

    Probably not. But then in those instances, people were not burning down buildings, violently attacking people, and offering rewards for the deaths of the artists. So maybe Bennett thinks there is a difference between the situations. I know I do.

  2. Probably not. But then in those instances, people were not burning down buildings, violently attacking people, and offering rewards for the deaths of the artists. So maybe Bennett thinks there is a difference between the situations. I know I do.

    So because there was no threat of violence with the anti-Christian pictures, failing to show them wasn’t cowardice?

  3. “radical Islamists…have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons.”

    Yeah, right. Like the New York Times would have run those cartoons a year ago.

    I agree, you shouldn’t let thugs and terrorists determine what you run and what you don’t. Which is exactly what American newspapers would be doing if they decided to run these cartoons merely because of the barbaric riots going on in the Middle East.

    As plenty of people have pointed out, those riots are deliberately being stoked by politicians, in suits and in robes, who are seeking to drum up hostility between Muslims and the West. American papers shouldn’t give in to these instigators, and shouldn’t go out of their way to publish these images.

    Now, if we’re talking about “Crappy Religious Iconography Quarterly,” and they publish stuff like this all the time, yeah, go ahead, carry on.

  4. Only Islamists do that nasty stuff:

    Andre Serrano of Piss Christ: “He has received death threats and hate mail and has lost grants on the one hand. . . .” http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2002/09/shooting_the_kl.php

    “N-P-R’s Linda Gradstein reports that Irish singer Sinead O’Connor cancelled a weekend concert in Jerusalem because of death threats by Jewish extremists.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1028899

    Sinead O’Connor on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – During a live 10/3/92 appearance on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE Irish rock singer Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II . . . .When the program was rerun, the photo tearing scene was cut. http://www.tvacres.com/censorship_sinead.htm

  5. The NYT ran the Virgin Mary image, I recall seeing it in the WaPo. The link you gave shows that at the very least BBC and the Guardian host the image currently. I also recall the image was run in the Pgh Post Gazette, without being notable. I’m willing to bet a LexNex search could probably tell you who else. I do recall that most people I discussed the image with had seen it. Ugly was the common reaction.

    Don’t remember where I first saw the Piss Christ image, but I didn’t have the internet and didn’t have to seek it out. Didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it. I was a HS atheist that thought it was funny, and my Catholic parents thought it was gross. But we saw it.

    Conversly, I’d say that about 90% of the people I’ve spoken to about it (a much higher sample given the length of run) haven’t seen most of the images.

    I’m not putting this up as a scientific assessment (though this could easily be done with a little LexNex work, does reason have a subscription?) nor even to argue that it is a reason why they Mo images should be shown. But to complain about Dersh and Benny not writing a letter about the Christ and Mary images seems to be lacking in any sense of degree or proportion.

  6. If I recall correctly, Piss Christ was on the cover of the LA Weekly back the late 80s.

  7. re: Sinead, if SNL could have also cut out her horrible singing, it would have been censorship in service of art.

  8. I’m no fan of Bennet, but to claim some sort of hypocrisy because he PROBABLY wouldn’t support pictures of Christian blasphemy is a little ridiculous.

  9. forget piss christ, I’m still waiting for NRO, Andrew Sullivan, Bennet et al to demand that newspapers in the west print Irving’s holocaust denials, to show their committment to freedom of speech, now under serious threat from the austrians. any day now, I reckon.

  10. With all due respect and all, what in the world do you mean, “little pictoral play?” As I remember it — and the Chris Ofili thing wasn’t all that long ago — those images ran all over the place. Maybe I saw them more because I live in New York — Brooklyn, to be exact. (And maybe I should’ve helped support our local arts community and gone to see them myself, but I never did.) Pictures of both scandalous objets were printed in newspapers (beyond just the Village Voice) and quite possibly TV news shows, too. In fact, my first thought was, “oh those things,” when the current Islamic Kartoon Krisis led some editorialists to reprint them, usually as part of a thank-God-we-figured-out-how-we’re-really-hypocrites-after-all polemic.

    Some news organizations may have decided not to run shots of these artworks because they thought they were in bad taste, but I remember most of them treating them like news and printing the picture.

    By the way, we’re all assuming that Bill Bennett seethed with anger at “Piss Christ” or “Holy Virgin Mary,” although nobody seems to have produced any evidence indicating that he did. But even if Bennett did rail and thunder at their blasphemy, do you really think he’d decree that they must never be shown? Don’t you think he’d want he pictures publicized, so as better to showcase the depravity of these controversial artists? I’m no fan of Bill Bennett — although I liked him a whole lot better after it got out about the kind of partier he could be — but if you’re looking for a new, less Islamic, villain in the Intoonfada story, you may need to resume the search.

  11. Quick tech bleg or whatever the commenter version is:

    Anyone know why my IE at home stopped showing hyperlinks when I hover?

  12. IIRC, the piss christ image was widely republished and disseminated. I seem to remember a photo of it in the NYT at the time, but I could be mistaken.

    But where Nick seems *way* off base is there wasn’t *any* debate that I can remember that said newspapers or newscasts shouldn’t show images of Piss Christ. Rather the debate was whether or not American taxpayers should fund it.

    Seriously, Nick, can you show us one contemporaneous instance of a public figure demanding that American newspapers *not* run photos of piss christ? or anger when they did?

  13. Huh. I’ve never seen Piss Christ before. It’s a lot more interesting than I’d expected. It appears to have actual artistic merit. Shocking.

  14. Nick has a point about Bennett’s hypocrisy, but….I think that there are good reasons other than fear or cowardice not to print items that would shock or anger some of your readers. When there was a controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, I also don’t recall William Bennett calling for the papers to show photos of a man with a bullwhip up his backside, but then, there are good reasons why the LA Times wouldn’t want that on their pages. I wouldn’t print a cartoon of a major religious figure wearing a turban that’s a big bomb because I think it’s gratuitously offensive, and for the same reason that I don’t believe that I’d print an image of the Virgin Mary giving oral sex or of a Jew drinking the blood of gentile children. (One could multiply the images that would give offense.)

    I am deeply angered by the fact that some have refused to print, not because of self-restraint due to good taste, but from fear of violent reprisals. (Note the editorial of the Boston Phoenix: http://thephoenix.com/article_ektid3588.aspx.) I am angry that there are violent people out there, rational fear of whom would induce such reluctance to print. But it should be kept in mind that there are reasons other than fear or excessive sensitivity to the feelings of others not to print images that are gratuitously offensive.

  15. isildur,
    Me and my roommate looked at it because we were curiou about what it looked like (after discussing the cartoon). He is Catholic and said he was offended by it, but that it was a beautiful and very artistic picture. He felt torn.

  16. “forget piss christ, I’m still waiting for NRO, Andrew Sullivan, Bennet et al to demand that newspapers in the west print Irving’s holocaust denials, to show their committment to freedom of speech, now under serious threat from the austrians. any day now, I reckon.”

    Hey, Sparky, nobody’s stopping you from republishing his stuff.

    What? Just because a publication runs some offensive content, they’re hypocrites for not running all offensive content?

    Idiot.

  17. joe,

    I agree with you almost 100%. The exception being that if a paper has a policy (or even decides to come up with one now and stick to it) of printing offensive cartoons solely when they become newsworthy, then it does make sense to print ’em once there are a bunch of riots. The riots definitely made the cartoons newsworthy. It’s not unreasonable for a paper to have such a policy, but it certainly shouldn’t be expected behavior, especially considering the typical offerings of many papers.

    For people who believe with Dershowitz and Bennett, consider this thought experiment:

    A photographer photographs a person cutting heads off of puppies. This picture is printed in an alternative weekly. The picture is, to most people, sickening and a huge national (but non-violent) debate erupts over whether the weekly (available free to minors) should have printed the photo. It’s trivial to describe in words the offensive photo and that’s what many papers do while covering the story.

    Should all papers print the photos, just so people can actually see the puppies heads being cut off?

    Does your opinion change if violent protests erupt demanding that the pictures not be printed? If so, how much violence is needed before it becomes a paper’s duty to print a photo that it wouldn’t normally have printed? Would one person being killed be sufficient? 10? 50? No people killed, but some buildings burned?

  18. Gillespie’s right to point out that Bennett is a situational free speech advocate at best. It seems to me that the guy’s spent a lot of time and used a lot of wind to try to shame and scare media into self-censorship, and it’s hilarious to see someone who’s tried so hard to intimidate media suggest that the media is behaving cowardly.

    His sensibilities are, apparently, too precious to offend. I fail to see why they’re any more important than anyone else’s.

    But then in those instances, people were not burning down buildings, violently attacking people, and offering rewards for the deaths of the artists. So maybe Bennett thinks there is a difference between the situations. I know I do.

    Are you suggesting that the fear of provoking violence is an unacceptable justification for self-censorship? …but that the fear of provoking the wrath of someone like Bennett is reason enough?

    …Is the distinction you’ve made supposed to support Bennett’s point or Gillespie’s?

  19. bennett is not a hypocrite;the analogy is not apt.

    i wouldn’t have a problem with a newspaper printing a picture of piss christ, but it was certainly a very MINOR news item

    these cartoons are undeniably a MAJOR news item. major. thus, the reasons to print them are substantial. thousands of people have rioted, many have been killed, buildings been burned, death threats been made, etc. the comparison is ludicrous. piss christ was a relatively minor story, and a local one at that.

    this is a story of major international import AND it threatens freedom of the press, since most press outlets have been cowed into not printing it out of FEAR. the very idea that it is being witheld out of sensitivity is laughable. c’mon. please. the NY press once printed an editorial about “100 reasons why I’ll be glad when the pope dies”. spare me the “sensitivity” ploy.

    these pictures are a major news item, offensive or not. and showing them allows people to decide FOR themselves whether or not the anger is justified (THAT is debatable. but the violence is inarguably not justified).

    the hypocrites are those at the village voice, etc. there have been SOME courageous voices, especially among liberals within their own establishments decrying the hypocrisy of leftist editors. one person put it quite well that he’d have no problem pissing on the bible, but wouldn’t consider doing it to the koran.

    we are letting these scum win out of fear, not “principle”.

    it is already ILLEGAL in many european countries to even disparage religion. get real.

    the ultimate irony is the very point of the mohammed with turban cartoon was to protest the fact that islamofascists USE islam as an excuse/motivation for violence, then the same people use the cartoons criticizing them for this – to commit more violence. i could cut the irony with a ladle.

  20. ? So because there was no threat of violence with the anti-Christian pictures, failing to show them wasn’t cowardice? ?

    First of all, the pictures were seen all over. Second, Christianity being the majority religion and part of the culture here means the potential offense of them is easily understood. It is something else altogether to show an cartoon of a guy in heaven saying “Sorry, but we’re all out of virgins,” and having the offense of that be obvious. As best I recall, the cartoon with the turban that is a bomb is the only that is at first glance obviously offensive. Third, yes, that the Muslims have violently rioted and offered money to kill the cartoonists makes this situation different. The Christians were upset over the crucifix in a jar of urine (the laziest bit of “art” I think I’ve ever heard of) but they were not attacking people in the streets and threatening to kill the guy (not so far as I recall anyway). Are you saying that the essentially peaceful if perturbed reaction of the Christians is equal to the violent and life-threatening reaction of the Muslims?

  21. ? Are you suggesting that the fear of provoking violence is an unacceptable justification for self-censorship? …but that the fear of provoking the wrath of someone like Bennett is reason enough? ?

    No, I’m suggesting there is an obvious difference between Christians getting their panties in a wad over a crucifix in a jar of urine, and Muslims physically attacking people and offering money for the death of cartoonists of images that dare to depict Mohammed. Are you suggesting there isn’t a difference?

    ? Is the distinction you’ve made supposed to support Bennett’s point or Gillespie’s? ?

    I suppose I am (and this is not usual for me) supporting Bennett’s point.

    The violent uproar over the cartoon is irrational if not insane, and people should see that this isn’t a crescent in a jar of urine, or an image of the Koran with dung on it, but simple cartoons that if they depicted Jesus or Moses or President Bush or Senator Clinton or whomever, hardly any, if any at all, people here would start physically attacking people and offering bounties for the cartoonists. If I say, this bit of art is a crucifix in a jar of urine, do you really have to see it to get why someone might find it offensive? If I say, this cartoon depicts Mohammed and people are killing because this was printed, don’t you think you should see it to get some idea what the fuss is about, to get some clue about what the Muslims are actually finding so offensive?

    To me, the difference is obvious.

  22. The Christians were upset over the crucifix in a jar of urine . . . No, I’m suggesting there is an obvious difference between Christians getting their panties in a wad over a crucifix in a jar of urine . . . If I say, this bit of art is a crucifix in a jar of urine, do you really have to see it to get why someone might find it offensive?

    Given that you got the description of what the actual artwork is wrong, three times in two posts, my answer is “Yes.”

    (the laziest bit of “art” I think I’ve ever heard of)

    You clearly don’t get around much, then.

  23. Interestingly, “Sister Wendy” of the quirky brit art appreciating nun fame *liked* the Piss Christ. She took it as a metaphor for being against Jesus’s teachings (and she was very gay friendly in her interviews!).

    If you want art that isn’t in anyway provative or insulting or make you think one way or the other try Thomas Kincaide.

  24. If you ask me, a more apt anology would be:

    It’s 1992, shortly after the Rodney King riots. An L.A. alternatively weekly posts an editorial cartoon of the riots that includes vaguely racist caricatures of African-Americans. Riots flare up again, and the L.A. Weekly’s office goes up in flames.

    Pressure builds on the L.A. Times to rerun the editorial catroons, just to assert freedom of the press, and prove that they aren’t intimidated.

    Should they run them?

  25. “Given that you got the description of what the actual artwork is wrong, three times in two posts, my answer is ‘Yes.'”

    Hmm… very interesting. I wonder how many rioting muslims (it takes to screw in a light bulb?) No, that’s not it. How many of them actually saw the cartoons, or were just told they were offensive?

    What did most of the world think the Abu Garib (sic?) torture consisted of before it actually came out to more closely resemble rush week activities?

    How many parents get teachers fired because of something they heard second or third-hand?

    Being offended is a natural human reaction, and unfortunately most people don’t care to explore beyond their initial impression.

  26. The internet once again saves the old media from having to publish unpleasant things. With so many news options, editors don’t feel the need to show us everything. Beheadings, body parts and cartoons are all available online. Why risk it? except, maybe, to stay relevant?

  27. Jason Ligon,

    Look under “View” on the menu bar and see if “Status Bar” is checked. If not, that might be your problem.

  28. Belle, do you read NRO? Just a couple of days ago, they ran a Buckley piece saying that Austria was obviously in the wrong (though he took a certain pleasure in seeing Irving arrested):
    http://www.nationalreview.com/buckley/buckley200602211443.asp

    I’m not sure if that’s what you’re looking for, but there it is.

    Does the distinction between people rioting and killing and this being encouraged and praised by their leaders, on the one hand, and people getting angry and boycotting and calling for removing federal grants, on the other, really seem so small to most people? Once you get large scale violence and large cash rewards for murder, it seems to me the difference is no longer one of degree but of kind.

    Also, more than any other comparison someone wants to make, remember that people actually did attack a Muslim holy site in Iraq just recently. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see riots because of that. Does it matter that one was done by a small, unimportant western newspaper, while the other was done by Muslims? Apparently.

  29. Radley, what if the alternative LA Weekly ran the cartoons and the riots started anew…

    Would it be irresponsible for the Terra Haute Bugle to print them?

    The Des Moines Register?

    The New York Times?

  30. Publishing the cartoons could be a very risky thing for a newspaper to do. There’s a chance that a journalist will be beheaded, but there’s also the chance of a payoff, as readers gain more respect for the editors.

    Bill Bennett, of course, can’t see why anybody would shy away from a gamble.

  31. What did most of the world think the Abu Garib (sic?) torture consisted of before it actually came out to more closely resemble rush week activities?

    You’re . . . kidding? That’s a joke, right?

  32. ? Given that you got the description of what the actual artwork is wrong, three times in two posts, my answer is “Yes.” ?

    Sheesh. It’s been years, so if I was a little off in the discription, I apologize. It was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. People were not upset, however, because it was a photograph.

    And anyway, thanks for completely ignoring the rest of what I said. My point still holds true, and you didn’t even address it.

  33. I’m not sure the riots make the cartoons themselves newsworthy.

    The riots themselves are certainly newsworthy. The fact that the riots are happening because newspapers printed these cartoons is newsworthy.

    But on the other hand, as has been repeatedly pointed out, the rioters aren’t taking to the streets because of the actual content of the cartoons, but because they depict the prophet Mohammed. Since the actual content is irrelevant to the story, what relevant news is lost by writing that the cartoons depict the Big Mo, and explaining why that upsets people, instead of actually showing the cartoons?

  34. “What did most of the world think the Abu Garib (sic?) torture consisted of before it actually came out to more closely resemble rush week activities?”
    “You’re . . . kidding? That’s a joke, right?”

    Coyote is probably uninformed as to the full scope, Phil. Initially I thought it was just barking dogs and naked human pyramids until I did more personal research into the matter. There is some pretty shocking stuff about this if you look deeper, Coyote, but it’s still nothing compared to the torture American soldiers suffered in Vietnam POW camps.

  35. And anyway, thanks for completely ignoring the rest of what I said. My point still holds true, and you didn’t even address it.

    Actually, I think you getting it wrong goes right to negating your own point: It’s been so ingrained as received wisdom that “Piss Christ is a crucifix in a jar of urine” that you go from there to asking, “Do you really need to see it to know that some people might find it offensive?”

    If, instead, you were to have described it as what it is — a photograph — then yes, I think people would need to see it to know why some people might find it offensive. Just seeing the photograph and knowing nothing else about it, I’d think that a person was off their rocker for finding it offensive. It’s only the knowledge of how it was achieved that causes the supposed offense. The artwork itself is not only nonoffensive as it stands, it’s quite striking.

  36. To me, the difference is obvious.

    The difference between rampaging fanatics and William Bennett is interesting to someone, I’m sure. I don’t see what it has to do with your comment at the top of this thread, but who says comments have to relate to anything?

  37. I definitely saw the dung-splattered Virgin Mary in Time and/or the New York Times. I’m sorry I can’t provide hard proof of this, but I have no doubt that Gillespie’s claim that there was a news blackout of that image or of Piss Christ is inaccurate.

  38. I definitely saw the dung-splattered Virgin Mary in Time and/or the New York Times. I’m sorry I can’t provide hard proof of this, but I have no doubt that Gillespie’s claim that there was a news blackout of that image or of Piss Christ is inaccurate.

  39. I’m sorry I can’t provide hard proof of this, but I have no doubt that Gillespie’s claim that there was a news blackout of that image or of Piss Christ is inaccurate.

    A “news blackout” and “newsworthy images that got little pictoral play in the mainstream media” are different things. One involves covering something and not showing what’s being covered, and the other involves not covering something at all. You know which is which, don’t you?

  40. ? Actually, I think you getting it wrong goes right to negating your own point: It’s been so ingrained as received wisdom that “Piss Christ is a crucifix in a jar of urine” that you go from there to asking, “Do you really need to see it to know that some people might find it offensive?” ?

    Pooh yi. That I and so many others know what the photograph is a photo of would indicate that news of the art was not hidden away, unmentioned for fear of hurting the feelings of the Christians. Thus, my initial point remains and remains unaddressed by you. You’re staring at the trees and insisting they disprove the existence of the forest.

  41. ? The difference between rampaging fanatics and William Bennett is interesting to someone, I’m sure. I don’t see what it has to do with your comment at the top of this thread, but who says comments have to relate to anything? ?

    I wasn’t comparing the Muslims and Bennett. I made a few comparisons, but that wasn’t one of them. I’m tired now, so I’ll leave it to you to go back and look at what I actually said.

  42. My aplogies for bad phrasing. My point stays the same.

  43. The Ombudsman for the Boston Globe is explaining why they won’t publish the Danish cartoons even though they published “Piss Christ” three times. I wrote to him and included my letter published in the (Irish) Sunday Tribune.

    To: Richard Chac

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