Posted by Curt on 13 January, 2015 at 11:17 am. 1 comment.


Matt Welch:

It’s a fortunate thing that the new Charlie Hebdocover 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 avoidedreprinting 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.”

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