Civil Liberties

Society for Professional Journalists: Mostly Mum on Molly Norris, and Trashing the Journalists Who Pointed That Out


On Sept. 15, it was announced that Molly Norris, the Seattle-based alt-weekly cartoonist who suggested, then eventually backed away from and repudiated, the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" protest against Comedy Central censoring bits of a South Park episode, had gone into hiding with the FBI's assistance so as to hopefully avoid being murdered by Islamic assassins. It was a dark, dark day for American journalism and the freedom of expression. On Sept. 20, the Washington Examiner newspaper wrote an editorial criticizing the professional journalism/free speech community for its comparative silence on the issue. Excerpt from that:

When The Examiner asked the American Society of News Editors for a statement on the issue, none was forthcoming. This despite the fact that the first sentence of ASNE's Web site describes its mission as supporting "the First Amendment at home and free speech around the world." We got a similar response from the Society of Professional Journalists, despite its dedication "to the perpetuation of the free press as the cornerstone of our nation and liberty."

After the Examiner piece got picked up nationwide, according to the paper's Mark Tapscott, the SPJ began telling people that the editorial wasn't "factual":

[A] week after our editorial appeared, I was shocked to learn that SPJ was circulating to inquiring journalists a statement claiming "the Examiner did not accept SPJ Headquarters' contact information for the Societ's Washington Pro chapter, nor for our National President, so that the Examiner could pursue any legitimate information or stand point from us. It is important to note that their article was not a legitimate news piece with factual sources, but opinion focused."

The only problem with that statement? The Examiner's Mark Hemingway "recorded his Sept. 19 conversation with SPJ spokesman Scott Leadingham." From the transcript:

Hemingway: I called because I was wondering if you guys have issued any statement or comment, are you familiar with the the Molly Norris situation?

Scott Leadingham, SPJ: No, sorry could you bring me up to speed?

Hemingway: She is the cartoonist with the Seattle Weekly newspaper in Seattle that started the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." She's now gone into hiding with the help of the FBI.

Scott Leadingham, SPJ: Oh wow, I didn't know that. Ok.

Hemingway: I was just wondering if you guys had said anything. I'm guessing the answer is no.

Scott Leadingham, SPJ: That is correct. We haven't officially. I'm not aware if our chapter in Western Washington in Seattle did. Sometimes our chapters kind of act autonomously, especially responding to kind of local situations, so you might check in with them, but I can tell you no emphatically that from a national perspective we have not."

To date, the only public mention of the issue by the SPJ that I could find when searching its site and the Internet at large was this Sept. 29 tidbit near the bottom of a news-roundup column:

SUPPORTING OUR CARTOONISTS. In support of Molly Norris, the Seattle Weekly cartoonist threatened and now in hiding, and the free speech rights of cartoonists, Signe Wilkinson and Ann Telnase organized a petition expressing support for these rights and all cartoonists who have been threatened. If you want to help in their cause, the online petition can be found by following this link.

I don't expect journalism organizations to share my priorities. But I do expect them to do more than raise an eyebrow when a cartoonist goes into hiding after being threatened with death, then act all bitchy when someone calls them out on it.