The New York Times has premised its refusal to republish the most controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the sensibilities of its readers: “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.” Echoes of the “deliberately” offensive rationale ring out from top managers at the Associated Press and The Post.
Compelling as these arguments may sound, they boil down to a refusal to show the world as it is, to explain how events have evolved. They also express the mainstream media’s long-held belief in the fragility and naivete of its audience. Plus, who is the New York Times to judge the intentions of a cartoonist? How does the paper know what’s “deliberately” offensive? Would it publish “accidentally” offensive drawings?
Yet the deliberately-offensive rationale is more defensible than the one offered this morning by CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. According to a story by CNNers Brian Stelter and Tom Kludt, Zucker opened an editorial meeting this morning with the following message: “‘Journalistically, every bone says we want to use and should use’ the cartoons, Zucker said. But ‘as managers, protecting and taking care of the safety of our employees around the world is more important right now.'”
Which amounts to an admission that fear of terrorism is driving CNN’s editorial decisions. Credit Zucker for being a caring boss. According to its Web site, CNN is powered by nearly 4,000 “news professionals.” The Erik Wemple Blog has been watching at least eight hours of CNN per day over the past 12 months and is impressed with how quickly and thoroughly the network hops on international stories. How many hours, for example, did it take top CNN talent Anderson Cooper to land on the ground in France yesterday? If anyone out there should be concerned about exposing people to international terrorism, in other words, it’s Zucker.
Yet his capitulation to fear doesn’t withstand scrutiny on any level. As to the suggestion that somehow self-censoring the Charlie Hebdo drawings protects Zucker’s foreign correspondents, consider what little provocation brings deadly consequences: The Islamic State terror group beheaded an aid worker; it beheaded freelance journalists. Those incidents served as a warning that any journalist — any Westerner — who falls into the hands of the enemy is in extreme danger overseas. CNN’s front-liners were at risk before the Charlie Hebdo affair, and they’ll be at risk after the Charlie Hebdo affair, without regard to how CNN treats the magazine’s controversial drawings. For that matter, people sitting in their offices in Paris are obviously at risk now, too.
Plus: CNN is in the business of taking calculated risks to bring the truth to the public. This is one calculation that misfired.