In an interview published by the AFP on Sunday, the American comic artist Art Spiegelman lambasted the US press for not republishing the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, some of them depicting the prophet Mohammed, that preceded a massacre at the newspaper’s offices last Wednesday, the Daily Mail reported.
“I think it’s so hypocritical to drape yourself in freedom of speech and then self-censor yourself to the point where you are not making your readers understand the issues,” Spiegelman said. “That cartoon [a caricature of Mohammed from 2006] was not making fun of the prophet, it was excoriating the believers who would kill.”
Several large media outlets have chosen not to run the French weekly’s cartoons — most recently its new cover, another image of Mohammed, this time with a frown and a tear and holding a sign that says “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) — resorting instead to blurring and cropping photographs in a manner that would hide the potentially incendiary material. In the United States, those outlets include the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, and NBC News. While Fox News initially showed one of the Hebdo cartoons, it has since told the Washington Post it does not intend to re-air it.
Some publications have defended the decision as a matter of editorial standards. New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet explained that the newspaper doesn’t “normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities. Many Muslims consider publishing images of their prophet innately offensive and we have refrained from doing so.” (An editorial in Prospect recently questioned whether the Koran actually forbids depictions of Mohammed).
The AP similarly told BuzzFeed, “None of the images distributed by AP showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”
And, echoing the others, an NBC spokesperson told the site, “Our NBC News Group Standards team has sent guidance to NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC not to show headlines or cartoons that could be viewed as insensitive or offensive.”
Differing approaches to satire in the US and France have been offered up as another reason. In The New Yorker, critic Adam Gopnik pointed out that France has a long-running tradition of “direct, high-spirited, and extremely outrageous caricature” that’s far more incendiary than its US counterpart. “[The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists] worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy,” he wrote. “Charlie Hebdo was—will be again, let us hope—a satirical journal of a kind these days found in France almost alone.”
Baquet, on the other hand, thinks the French went too far. According to a New York Times blog post written by public editor Margaret Sullivan, he called the cartoons “gratuitous insult,” saying “there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire.”
Regardless, many are calling foul, pointing out that media outlets declining to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have previously printed images that offend other religions. The New York Times and the AP have published images of Jesus — including Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (depicting Christ submerged in urine) and Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (made in part of elephant dung) — that provoked considerable outrage among Protestant Christians and Catholics. (Since the outcry, the AP has removed the image of Serrano’s artwork from its database). While the Bible does not forbid images of Christ, as with the Koran and Mohammed, it does condemn blasphemy.
So, what’s really going on here? While the decision to publish sensitive material is indeed an editorial one, it doesn’t mean it’s not also driven (understandably) by fear. Last Thursday, CNN Head Jeff Zucker reportedly said in an editorial meeting, “Journalistically, every bone says we want to use and should use [the cartoons] … [but] as managers, protecting and taking care of the safety of our employees around the world is more important right now.”
Echoing that statement, Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chonicle, a UK publication that also chose not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, asked on Twitter, “what right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point?”
Whatever the reasoning, it hasn’t convinced many other news outlets not to publish the cartoons, which have an undeniable news value. CBS, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Beast, AFP/Yahoo, USA Today, Business Insider, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, the New York Post, and BuzzFeed have all run them.
“We had a spirited debate about whether or not to run the images … we’ve got a number of Muslim members of staff,” BuzzFeed UK editor Luke Lewis told Radio 5. “And in the end we decided unanimously that there was a clear news value to publishing the images. These were images that had sparked a world-shaking act of violence and to write a news story about that and to not include the images would be perverse.”
Spiegelman argues that newspapers citing editorial standards as a reason to not publish the cartoons suffer from a “mega-fanatic zeal” to be politically correct. “When religion overlaps with social and political issues, it’s necessary to fight back,” he said.