Civil Liberties

Rant: Cartoons Make Cowards of Us All

American editors pine: "If we only had the nerve."


Is there any more cowardly class of Americans than journalists? From the Green Zone in Iraq, where they brave lengthy press releases to conclude that the war effort is either doomed or going swimmingly, to the outskirts of New Orleans, where they passed along wild claims of massacres and sniping without venturing into the city's ghoul-infested interior to verify the story, to the darkest corners of Judith Miller's jail cell, the nation's media professionals have lately demonstrated a kind of courage rarely seen outside a hamster cage.

But no feat of derring-do could match the conscientious objector status American papers claimed in the intoonfada, the global uprising over a series of drawings of the prophet Muhammad that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

With major cities on three continents convulsed by rioting, arson, and death threats, as journalists from Norway to South Africa to Saudi Arabia risked careers and lives by republishing the cartoons, newspaper editors in the good ol' USA were plundering The Associated Press Stylebook for reasons not to expose their tender readers to a completely inoffensive display. (You can see the 'toons yourself at And when they ran out of traditional reasons to suppress the most talked-about pictures of the last year, they made up some new ones.

For a lesson in how it's done, listen to Robert Rosenthal, vice president and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Speaking to the Jim Lehrer Newshour at the height of the crisis, Rosenthal alluded to the "cultural divide between our values and the Islamic values," saying, "I think for most American audiences and our readers, they would look at this drawing, which we've all seen probably by now somewhere, and say, what is the big deal? I'm not sure that would have added to our knowledge of why people of the Muslim faith would be so offended."

True enough: Most San Francisco readers would look at the cartoons, which are at about the artistic level of Asterix, and be dumbfounded that anybody could commit murder over them. That's not the problem with the story; that is the story.

Nor is it true, as many editors claimed, that the pictures were so widely distributed that there was no need to run them. In this writer's experience speaking with well-read and Web-enabled folks in the Chronicle's own market, it is clear that many people have a very inaccurate idea of what is in the cartoons.

Strangely, no papers argued their most compelling cases for self-censorship. One is that being pressured to publish material is as constraining as being pressured not to publish it; you don't want to give a mob even unwitting control of your editorial decisions. (That's a hand the Iranian paper Hamshahri tried to play by daring Western media outlets to cover its cartoons mocking the Holocaust.) Another is that publishing the pictures involves actual risk to people's lives. Catholic League President Bill Donohue made this point in comparing the short shrift his group's complaints get from the media with the deference shown to Muslims. "The difference," Donohue wrote, is that "the extremists in their ranks—and they are not a tiny minority—have shown they may respond with beheadings.…Ethics, not fear, should guide the media."

Donohue is right. But as Bob Hope knew, if you're a chicken it's best to be up front about it. That American media were censoring themselves for fear of enraging Muslims may be unflattering to admit, but it's a crucial element—perhaps the most important element—in this story. In the end, it was Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt who had the most accurate read. "They're so wimp-kneed, you know, there's no point in even discussing the media," Flynt told the blogger Steven I. Weiss. "They're a bunch of suits in an ivory tower trying to decide what we should see, what we shouldn't see."