Will American News Organizations Reprint the Most Newsworthy Cartoon of the Year?

The New York Times had 9 years to come up with a better justification for not running images of Mohammed


It's a fortunate thing that the new Charlie Hebdo cover image became known today at 4:30 p.m. ET, because that means the same deep-pocketed, overlawyered, American news organizations that have so spectacularly avoided reprinting allegedly "offensive" CH covers thus far will have plenty of time to wrestle with their starkest yes-or-no choice yet: Are you really going to opt out of showing the most newsworthy cover image of the year, one that carries a legitimately sweet (if sardonic) message, just because it portrays (a grieving and empathetic) Mohammed?

Unsurprisingly, The New York Times is out of the gate with a resounding "yes." The Paper of Record is in the awkward position of having a (very good) article up titled "Charlie Hebdo's New Issue Has Muhammad on the Cover," absent a certain, shall we say, illustrative element. In contrast, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times have shared with their readers (at least online) what the hullaballoo is about.

That last publication in particular is significant to me, since that's where the current editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, was the man in charge during the 2006 Danish cartoon cartoon controversy. I worked there at the same time, for the Opinion section—which was not under Baquet's domain—where I lost a strenuous argument about the necessity of reprinting one of the contested images, a story I recount at some length here. Perhaps the greatest insult I could give to Baquet (who I met once or twice; perfectly nice guy) is to say that it never really occurred to me that he would screw up the courage to print a simple, newsworthy cartoon. As then-Times media columnist Tim Rutten recounted at the time, in a column so withering he wouldn't even utter Baquet's name,

I suggested that the cartoons run inside the Calendar section with a notice in this space concerning their location. That way, those who wanted to see them could, while those who might be offended simply could avoid that page.

I fully expected the proposal to be rejected, and it was—quickly and in writing, though the note also expressed the hope that the column would be as forceful and candid as possible.

File away that retreat-but-publicly-agonize-over-it move for later. For now, reflect that Rutten's column, which attracted a fair amount of national attention at the time, was headlined "Let's be honest about cartoons," and leveled the self-damning accusation that newspapers were dodging the issue out of fear, without having the basic sense of transparency or decency to admit it to their readers: 

Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision "out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy."

There is something wonderfully clarifying about honesty.

After pointing out that all newspapers have double standards when it comes to "offending" various groups, Rutten concluded: "those of us who inhabit this real world will continue to believe that the American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency."

I quote Rutten at length to underline that Dean Baquet has had nine years to come up with a better justification. Instead, he has spent the past week beclowning himself again and again. I am not being unfair.

On January 8, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote an agonized piece titled "A Close Call for Publication of Charlie Hebdo Cartoons." In it, Baquet played Hamlet:

Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.

He said he had spent "about half of my day" on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times's international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.

"I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice," he said. "It had to be my decision alone."

Oh how will our hero decide???

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious? those that are meant to mock even more so. "We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult."

"At what point does news value override our standards?" Mr. Baquet asked. "You would have to show the most incendiary images" from the newspaper? and that was something he deemed unacceptable.

I asked Mr. Baquet about a different approach — something much more moderate, along the lines of what the [Washington] Post's Op­Ed page did in print. "Something like that is probably so compromised as to become meaningless," he responded, though he was speaking generally, not of The Post's decision.

The Times undoubtedly made a careful and conscientious decision in keeping with its standards.

Undoubtedly. Let's recap: To be representative of the art, you had to print the most "incendiary" (note choice of words) stuff—as opposed to, say, this wholly appropriate post-firebombing cartoon of a male Hebdo staffer kissing a male Muslim. Since the most shocking images were indeed shocking (especially to American eyeballs), then they'd be too gratuitously offensive, and that violates the paper's long-held standard.

It took about a half-hour for Baquet's story to fall apart. Here's Politico's Dylan Byers:

Yet in August 2010, the Times published this item about a Holocaust-denying Iranian cartoonist with an image of a cartoon that featured, in the Times' words, "anti-Jewish caricatures." Four years earlier, in 2006, the Times published this article about an Iranian exhibition of "anti-Jewish art," which featured a photograph of three anti-Semitic cartoons, one of which included a swastika.

Out: long-held standard. In: "Baquet noted that he wasn't executive editor when the two pieces were published, and added, 'I obviously don't feel an obligation to follow anyone else's edict.'" The NYT editor also added this new wrinkle:

But let's not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet. I don't give a damn about the head of ISIS but I do care about that family and it is arrogant to ignore them.

By this time the snickers were spilling over from Twitter all the way into respectable newsprint. Gawker declared flatly that Baquet's "dictum is confusing because it's false: On many occasions the paper of record has printed images that are "'designed to gratuitously offend.'" Editorial Page Editor Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post, which was among the few dailies in the country reprinting Charlie Hebdo just after the attack, noted that "Tellingly, The Times has had no qualms in the past about publishing imagery gratuitously insulting to other faiths." At The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway was as shrill as Tim Rutten: "Nobody believes this. Absolutely nobody on earth believes that American journalists operate with deference toward Baptists, Mormons or Catholics, much less an abundance of deference to same."

I had mentioned above that Dean Baquet has been "beclowning himself again and again" during this controvery, which certainly sounds uncharitable. But consider that after two days of his public agony and easily disprovable "standards," Baquet then went on Facebook to throw a shit-fit about a critical post from old L.A. lefty journo/professor Marc Cooper. I'm totally not making that up.

After Cooper had written, "Exactly how many people have to be shot in cold blood before your paper rules that you can show us what provoked the killers?…What absolute cowardice. These MSM managers act is if they are running insurance companies, not news organizations," Baquet shot back:

Dear Marc, appreciate the self righteous second guessing without even considering there might be another point of view. Hope your students are more open minded. Asshole

He then kept digging:

Of course there is a second view. And I welcome it. But your note was thoughtless and arrogant. It didn't invite argument. It invites so what you got. And no insurance didn't even enter the discussion.

I welcome vigorous debate. Not righteous cheap shots […]

Understand you disagree. But there was a thoughtful discussion to be had. Next time I promise we will have it. But I briistle at arguments like those of fauchier who think it was a question of courage. It was not.

Meanwhile, the paper's Opinion section is running a "Room for Debate" back-and-forth about Charlie Hebdo, asking the important questions, "Can writers and artists sometimes be too provocative and outrageous? Should they hold themselves back?" I think we know Dean Baquet's answers to that.

To quote Tim Rutten, a columnist with whom I have disagreed plenty over the years, "Let's be honest about cartoons." News organizations who won't show Charlie Hebdo's latest cover are either afraid of being bombed, afraid of jeopardizing their foreign assets, or they are willfully submitting to the heckler's veto and giving preference to those who complain loudest. There is, in my opinion, no shame at all in the first two on that list, as long as you cop to it. The main issue is that few people outside of Penn Jillette are ever honest and decent enough to do so. The next few hours will tell us a lot about the vertebrae and virtue of American newsrooms.

In conclusion, let's correct a possible misimpression. Guardian "Long Reads" Editor Jonathan Shainin snarks here that "The campaign to pressure newspapers to publish Charlie Hebdo covers is the great white people social movement of our time." Juvenile white-on-white rhetorical violence aside, there is no such "pressure" campaign. I want Dean Baquet and the rest of America's editors to be honest about their decision-making, is all. If they're worried about the back-office staff getting blown up, I totally understand that, even if I doubt that risk would amount to much if people just acted on their news judgment instead of fear.

But I suspect it's something far less noble. On Sunday The Times ran an article about an eight-foot statue of Mohammed that stood atop a Manhatttan Appellate Division Courthouse without incident for a half-century until 1955, when it was "removed out of deference to Muslims, to whom depictions of the prophet are an affront." The next paragraph is killer:

(For the same reason, The New York Times has chosen not to publish photographs of the statue with this article.)

So it's not that Charlie Hebdo went over the line of decency, it's that The New York Times under Dean Baquet's editorship has elevated a doctrinally questionable and physically non-existent taboo into a red line for the rest of his readers. Scientologists, grab your bricks. Seventh Day Adventists, take note. You, too, can make the historically existing figures who founded your churches into people who can never be depicted in the Paper of Record, even as a picture of long-forgotten, never-controversial statue. You just need to complain with enough force.

UPDATE: Buzzfeed has an initial list of decisions by 23 news organizations.