CNN has decided not to show its viewers the most newsworthy image of 2015:
That’s the cover of the new edition of Charlie Hebdo, depicting the prophet Muhammad showing solidarity with the victims of the radical Islamist attack on the magazine’s offices last week that killed 12 people. CNN host Carol Costello explained this morning the rationale behind the network’s decision: “CNN will not show you the new cover, which depicts the prophet Muhammad, because it is our policy not to show potentially offensive images of the prophet.”
We thus have two CNN rationales for self-censoring the work of Charlie Hebdo. When the network declined last week to show the edgy caricatures that appeared to have motivated the attack, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker cited safety as an explanation. “Journalistically, every bone says we want to use and should use” the images, Zucker told colleagues. As a manager, however, Zucker said that “protecting and taking care of the safety of our employees around the world is more important right now.”
Less censorship has applied to the work of al-Qaeda. Just after Wednesday’s attacks, CNN-er Randi Kaye prepared a report on how slain Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier had been targeted by al-Qaeda, a fact reported far and wide in the media. The reporting didn’t stop there. In a package that aired on “Anderson Cooper 360,” Kaye focused on a page from the March 2013 edition of the al-Qaeda magazine “Inspire” that identified a group of targets.
“YES WE CAN. A BULLET A DAY KEEPS THE INFIDEL AWAY. Defend prophet Muhammad peace be upon him,” reads an introduction to the list. In her package, Kaye explained the rest of the presentation: “The poster reads, ‘WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE FOR CRIMES AGAINST ISLAM,’ published by al-Qaeda. Those pictured are primarily people who have criticized or satirized the Muslim faith — in the eyes of militant Islam, punishable by death.” As Kaye provided context, the camera moved slowly across the terror grid, providing viewers the very artistic setup — a “Wanted” poster aimed at agents of free expression, that is — that al-Qaeda sought to place before as large an audience as possible. Again and again, Kaye’s segment returned to the al-Qaeda poster as a visual narrative guide for her reporting, landing on various targets and explaining their predicaments.
Asked for its stance on republishing offensive content from a terrorist publication, a CNN spokeswoman replied, “We’ll decline.” Comment or no-comment, the case for CNN rests on newsworthiness: If ever the al-Qaeda hit list merited some attention, it’s right after a target gets killed in a brutal, planned attack. Consider also that previous segments on the network offered fuzzier and less scannable looks at the most-wanted list.
Speaking of fuzzy, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow landed on this same topic just moments after Kaye’s report. In her inimitable long-form delivery, Maddow unspooled a mini-profile of “Inspire.” Her explanation of the motives and goals of the al-Qaeda magazine doubled as a reason why news organizations are well advised to think-think-think before transmitting close-ups of the magazine’s bloodiest pages. “This is a Western-style, English-language magazine designed specifically for readers who have Internet access and get Western cultural memes,” riffed Maddow. “And the whole point of Inspire as a magazine is not to draw more fighters into al-Qaeda central but instead to spread al-Qaeda everywhere, to spread al-Qaeda ideology and very specific terroristic tactics all over the world by radicalizing individual people essentially by remote control wherever they are — don’t travel, carry out your terrorist attack at home.”
As Maddow held forth, the screen behind her showed the infamous al-Qaeda poster, though the pictures of all but two targets — Charbonnier and one other — were blurred beyond recognition. The script reflected an effort on the anchor’s part not to make things any easier for the terrorists. In an attempt to describe the types of people on the al-Qaeda most-wanted bulletin, she provided this no-name example: “The Koran-burning crazy pastor guy in Florida was [on the list].”
On Fox News Wednesday evening, host Greta Van Susteren spoke with Chief Intelligence Correspondent Catherine Herridge about Charbonnier and the al-Qaeda hit list. During the conversation, Fox News showed a photo of Charbonnier but not of the al-Qaeda poster.
In deference to CNN and other news outlets who’ve dealt with “Inspire,” the choices aren’t easy. The public needs to know what’s happening with al-Qaeda. At the same time, no reputable news organization wants to assist al-Qaeda in getting word out to its “lone wolf” attackers across the globe.
New York Times International Editor Joe Kahn ably sums up the tension. “We’re wary of publishing propaganda from any source, certainly including al-Qaeda,” he noted in an e-mail. “I would not rule out referring to such a target list, especially in an environment like the one we’re in now, if the group’s threat generated news or a strong reaction. I would be very wary of publishing information of that kind if I felt that the news value was limited or repetitive or the main effect was to give a platform to a terror group.”
The Post last month published a story on the latest issue of “Inspire.” Though the magazine called for jihad against America, the Post’s write-up shied away from repeating the names of people targeted by the group. “I see no reason to avoid writing about al-Qaeda’s hit list assuming there is a news-driven reason for doing so,” noted National Editor Cameron Barr, who added that it’s best to proceed with caution regarding this material.