In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, publications around the world re-printed the satirical Mohammed cartoons on their pages.
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For many editors and journalists, and for their readers, re-publishing was a form of protest against extremist barbarity, standing up for core democratic value of free expression, showing solidarity with fellow journalists and simply being responsible news reporters.
Publications that stepped up to the plate included Germany’s Bild and Berliner Zeitung, Spain’s El Pais, Britain’s The Times of London, Israel's Haaretz and newspapers all over France. The list of those who stood tall, however, did not include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and The Associated Press. Neither CNN nor Fox News showed the images either.
The major American media outlets should have joined the rest of the world in publishing the illustrations, and in so doing they would have signaled their solidarity with threatened cartoonists and their identification with democratic principles. Instead, editors got drawn into debates about the cartoons' contents and used these as an excuse to inhibit their editorial decisions.
Executive editor of The New York Times Dean Baquet explained his decision to characterize the cartoons in words rather than show them: “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 [cartoons] are gratuitous insult.”
The discussion of whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are offensive or even racist is beside the point: what’s important is that they are satirical. Political satire doesn’t have to be funny. It can be sad. It can be bitter. It can be successful or it can fail. It cuts in all directions, but it has to cut. That’s part of its essence.
When a cartoonist goes to extremes, he risks censure, or disapprobation, his credibility or perhaps even his job. He ought not to be risking his life. But by critiquing the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons after the January 7 attack, hesitant editors are raising questions, even if they don’t intend to do so, of whether the cartoonists’ brought the slaughter on themselves.
On America’s influential National Public Radio, one host raised the question of whether Charlie Hebdo should have heeded warnings and avoided provocations. The premise of the question was that Charlie Hebdo invited what happened and it sounded very similar to asking if a rape victim should have been wearing such a short skirt.
Some compared the publication of images offensive to the Muslims to illustrations that desecrate the memory of the Holocaust or are anti-Semitic. One Brazilian illustrator posted a cartoon to Twitter after the attack on Charlie Hebdo but before the attack on the kosher supermarket showing a reader laughing at a drawing that mocks Mohammed and crying over one about the Holocaust. The illustrator calls it the West’s double standard. But he too misses the point. The question isn’t who finds what offensive. It’s that neither he nor any cartoonists who take up pens to draw crudely anti-Semitic or Holocaust-denying images are taking their lives in their hands.
This raises the issue of the appropriate response to offensive images. Images, for example, that twist the Star of David into a swastika or into concertina wire suggesting death camps are so common now as to constitute clichés. When I see these images I reject them as false and misinformed, and I turn the page. Readers, or leaders of the Jewish community, might complain to the newspapers who publish them, or demand an apology, but none would dream of encouraging the massacre those responsible for drawing or publishing them.
It is hard to understand why the global media had the moral clarity and fortitude to publish the images over which these journalists died, while the leading newspapers of the nation that calls itself the home of the free, land of the brave cowered. My own sense from having published stories worldwide is that American editors, more than anywhere else, are concerned about being misconstrued as insensitive, of offending – especially the downtrodden or victims of historic wrongs – and of course, of lawyers and litigation.
The upshot is that the terrorists who committed these crimes and the people who supported them will now view the major American media companies that refused to publish the cartoons – and whose journalists are among the best and bravest – as no more than paper tigers. While in their own eyes these news organizations were avoiding the risk of offending some of their readers, in the eyes of the jihadis, they were intimidated into censoring. That should have been reason enough for them to reprint the cartoons.
Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, said he’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees. I would hope that the Times and the rest of the American media it leads will yet get up off its knees and march itself back up to the frontline.
Todd Pitock is a writer in Philadelphia whose work appears in publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times and others.