Why Not Publish These Cartoons?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hundreds of readers have asked why The Post hasn't reprinted the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that inflamed Muslims around the world, leading to deadly protests and the burning of embassies. Some readers questioned the Post's journalistic courage.

Martin Lawton of Arlington wrote: "Certainly, given the uproar, it seems incumbent to publish them now so readers can take a look for themselves and make their own decisions. The cartoons have become The Story. How can The Post not show these images and keep a straight face?"

Executive Editor Len Downie made the decision, consulting with other top editors. The issue, he said, is one of journalistic judgment, not courage.

Downie said, "This newspaper vigorously exercises its freedom of expression every day. In doing so, we have standards for accuracy, fairness and taste that our readers have come to expect from The Post. We decided that publishing these cartoons would violate our standards. This has not prevented us from reporting about them and the controversy in great detail in many stories over several days."

Most good newspapers don't set out to offend readers. But newspapers shouldn't avoid controversy, and if they don't occasionally offend readers, they're probably not doing their job.

The Post is edited for accuracy, clarity, fairness and taste. That involves hundreds of decisions a day about which stories, pictures and drawings get into the paper and which don't.

The Post's news standards include a prohibition on gratuitous nudity, obscenity and violence. "Defamatory or prejudicial words and phrases that perpetuate racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes are impermissible," the paper's stylebook says. This also applies to photos and drawings.

The Danish cartoons, which were described in several Post stories, angered Muslims in part because Islamic tradition bans the visual depiction of human beings or "graven images," particularly of the prophet Muhammad or any religious figures.

Just because something is forbidden in religious practice doesn't mean that The Post won't report on it, visually or otherwise.

The Post has written thousands of stories about abortion, forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, and has printed countless recipes using pork, forbidden to Orthodox Jews and Muslims. And the Post publishes stories about drinking alcohol, forbidden by Islam and other faiths.

That also doesn't mean that The Post doesn't occasionally offend readers' sensibilities, religious or otherwise. A recent story on over-the-top bar and bat mitzvahs in New York offended several Jewish readers. But you're not going to see a cartoon lampooning the Virgin Mary or the Jewish high holy days in The Post. So you wouldn't expect to see a cartoon making fun of Muhammad.

The issue is taste and not just religious sensitivity. The Post published some of the first pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq but did not publish those that showed excessive nudity. The Post does not publish photos of dead people unless the photos are deemed to have high news value, such as one of the burned bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Iraq.

A story about teenage sex at an area high school was heavily edited by a top editor who thought it contained too much sexual detail. And while The Post published the "F" word because Vice President Cheney said it to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor, such words are seldom published.

Brian Jackson of Burtonsville said of the Danish cartoons, "Why would your paper not print them? I would assume it is because they were politically incorrect, or considered offensive. Yet, you offend people all the time with your cartoons. Most recently, you offended, I'm sure, many vets and wounded soldiers with Tom Toles's tasteless cartoon."

The Jan. 29 Toles cartoon, critical of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, showed a quadruple amputee in a hospital bed; it brought a flood of protests, including a letter signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Toles's cartoons appear on the editorial page, which is overseen by Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. Toles is a Post employee who has a great deal of freedom in choosing what to draw. Hiatt chose to run the cartoon, which Toles and Hiatt saw as critical of Rumsfeld, not of wounded soldiers.

Hiatt also could have chosen to run the cartoons depicting Muhammad. Downie oversees the news pages. And the wall of separation between editorial and news is high, very high.

But Hiatt said he would have made the same decision. "I would not have chosen to publish them, given that they were designed to provoke and did not, in my opinion, add much to any important debate. Should our calculation change once the story becomes big, because the cartoons are suddenly 'newsworthy'? If it was essential to see them in order to understand the story, then maybe. But in this case, the dispute isn't really about what the cartoons look like . . . it's about the fact that he was depicted at all. The cartoons were easily explainable in words. Why reprint something you know will offend many of your readers?"

At least two newspapers -- the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Austin American-Statesman -- have published one of the cartoons. Rich Oppel, the American-Statesman's editor, said, "We didn't put it out on the front page, and it was a way of responding to reader interest without rubbing it in the nose of people who take offense." Oppel said there was very little reader reaction. About 25 people picketed the Inquirer, but the paper "received hundreds of e-mails, mostly in support, and the rest were articulate and respectful," said Anne Gordon, the Inquirer's managing editor.

Being a First Amendment freak, I support those newspapers' right to publish the cartoons. Downie made a different and equally valid decision not to publish.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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