Civil Liberties

Just Admit it, Newspapers: You're Scared of Muslims



As Radley Balko noted in yesterday's Morning Links, the Washington Post and other newspapers pulled Wiley Miller's syndicated "Non Sequitur" cartoon from their comics pages two Sundays back, because Miller pulled a familiar-to-Reason-readers "where's Waldo?" gag with the Prophet Muhammad, satirizing the new 21st century taboo on the depiction of even jokes about the fear of depicting a historical figure who really existed.

As is typical of the genre, Washington Post editors tried to play their own "where's Waldo" with the censorship process:

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.

If the Post's new standard for comics is to make jokes "immediately clear," then it might be time to kill the comics page altogether. No, Martel/Brauchli, you pulled the cartoon because your fear of Muslims outweighs your commitment to free expression, period.

Now comes L.A. Times media critic James Rainey, who, even while concluding that the cartoon should have run (the L.A. Times, to no one's surprise, suppressed it), makes sure we understand that fear was not a factor, nosiree:

That's not to agree with some commentators who have called the refusal to run the comic a cowardly retreat from radicals. I'd say the ax that fell on "Non Sequitur" had more to do expediency. Moving in a hurry, with many other decisions that seemed more pressing at the time, editors probably killed the item rather than face the possibility of a furor for a piece they honestly felt was not of high quality.

Uh-huh. This is really how these gut-checks work. A boundary-stretching case comes before you, and suddenly everyone's an art critic. (Rainey: "I didn't find the panel especially powerful or witty.") I'll never forget how many people reacted to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by saying that, the thing is, Satanic Verses really isn't a very good book, and it's understandable that Muslims would take offense, etc. Faced with the fear of being blamed for (or the target of) a mysterious cartoon dog whistle that sends 1 billion of the planet's humans into a homicide-bombing frenzy, editors bring to the table levels of scrutiny literally never used on the media in question. As is underlined by Rainey's own reporting:

[Boston Globe] 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."

Is that the least believable media quote of 2010? Why yes, I think it is. This exchange at the end of the piece gets closer to the matter:

At the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman a senior editor named Drew Marcks told me when I asked about the cartoon, "I'd rather not talk about it."

I pressed. He hung up.

Advice for my newspaper friends: Listen to Penn Jillette. "[W]e haven't tackled Islam because we have families," he says. "[A]nd I think the worst thing you can say about a group in a free society is that you're afraid to talk about it." There, that wasn't very hard, was it?

I wrote about trying to convince the L.A. Times to reprint Danish cartoons of Muhammad in this piece from May.