The Volokh Conspiracy

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'Washington Post opinions section publishes controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon'



Erik Wemple (Washington Post) reports:

In Thursday's print edition, the Washington Post op-ed page is publishing the controversial cartoon of Charlie Hebdo magazine spoofing the prophet Muhammad—the very piece of satire that prompted the 2011 fire-bombing of the publication's Paris offices. (See a PDF of the full page here.) The cartoon depicted Muhammad saying, "100 lashes of the whip if you don't die laughing." That drawing and many others … may have motivated terrorists on Wednesday to unleash a heinous and deadly attack that claimed the lives of 12 people….

Samples of Charlie Hebdo's work thus might appear critical to explaining this act of terrorism. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post (and boss of the Erik Wemple Blog), said the following about his rationale for publishing the cartoon: "I think seeing the cover will help readers understand what this is all about."

But many mainstream U.S. media feel otherwise: The Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, NBC News and others have all shunned the images under one rationale or another. The New York Times has an expansive explanation: "Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities. After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today's story." … Newer media outlets like Gawker, the Daily Beast and BuzzFeed have published the images.

Now I think that printing such cartoons when they help illustrate what's actually going on—as they surely do in this instance—is basic journalistic responsibility, so I don't want to overhype the Post's doing its job here. But there has been a good deal of discussion in recent days about some news outlets not showing the cartoons, so I thought I'd note my pleasure that my colleagues at the Post did the right thing here.

UPDATE: Commenter John Roesink notes that the New York Times did publish a photograph of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," at least online (presumably an "abnormal" instance, given the Times statement.

FURTHER UPDATE: I originally wrote that the Post "published an Ann Telnaes cartoon that included one of the Hebdo Muhammad covers, though that was apparently only in the online version," but commenter Bill from Vegas points out that the cover was apparently intended to just depict a Muslim man, not Mohammed; this of course doesn't affect the bottom line of the post, but I wanted to note it. Sorry for the error, and thanks for the correction!