Ever since a Danish newspaper drew death threats and incited protests by publishing cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad in 2005, American news organizations have wrestled with a question: to publish or not to publish the offending, if clearly newsworthy, cartoons?
The issue came roaring back Wednesday with the attack on a satirical Paris publication that had republished the Danish cartoons and created its own in the face of violent threats from Muslim extremists. The attack by three gunmen on the publication, Charlie Hebdo, left 12 people dead, including its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who once defiantly posed with a copy of his magazine featuring a cartoon of an Orthodox Jewish man pushing Muhammad in a wheelchair.
In the wake of the atrocity, a few Western news sources reprinted some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. Those included BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, which headlined its compilation, “These Are The Charlie Hebdo Cartoons That Terrorists Thought Were Worth Killing Over.”
But other American news organizations have been reluctant to publish any of them, lest they give offense.
Even the photo of Charbonnier holding the newspaper — taken several months after the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo’s offices in 2011 — was considered controversial enough that the Associated Press cropped the image, leaving only Charbonnier’s face and the publication’s flag visible.
A second photo of the editor, showing his face and the full cartoon image, has been scrubbed from the AP’s archives. It was taken by a French service, SIPA, a partner agency that feeds images to the AP for distribution to its clients around the world. CNN, the New York Daily News and Britain’s Telegraph, among others, carried the second photo but blurred the depiction of Muhammad in the cartoon.
“We’ve taken the view that we don’t want to publish hate speech or spectacles that offend, provoke or intimidate, or anything that desecrates religious symbols or angers people along religious or ethnic lines,” said Santiago Lyon, a vice president of the AP and its director of photography. “We don’t feel that’s useful.”
Lyon said that’s not a capitulation to terrorist threats; it’s a policy covering all creeds and situations. When a Christian pastor, Terry Jones, threatened to burn thousands of Korans in 2013 as a “tribute” to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, AP photographers discussed ways to illustrate the story without showing burning holy books. (Jones did not go through with his plans.)
News organizations regularly edit images they deem too harsh or offensive, despite their newsworthiness, such as accident scenes, war casualties or nude photos. Few news outlets, for example, published grisly images of the beheadings of Americans held by Islamic State militants, or the hacked nude photos of Hollywood celebrities, though video and photos of both circulated on the Internet.
Neither the New York Times nor The Washington Post has ever published the Danish or French cartoons, and both indicated Wednesday that they don’t intend to.
The Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, said his paper doesn’t publish material “deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” He said Times editors decided that describing the cartoons rather than showing them “would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”
Similarly, The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, said his newspaper avoids publication of material “that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups” and would continue to apply those principles in the wake of the Paris atrocity.
However, The Post’s op-ed page, which is under separate editorial management, will publish one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in Thursday’s editions. The image, from the newspaper’s cover in 2011, depicts Muhammad with a caption reading “100 Lashes If You Don’t Die Laughing”; it apparently inspired the firebombing several days after it appeared. “I think seeing the cover will help readers understand what this is all about,” said Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial editor.
USA Today’s editor in chief, David Callaway, said his paper was “discussing” publication of the Muhammad cartoons. But late Wednesday afternoon, he said the newspaper would probably stick with cartoons reacting to the attack.
“It would be silly to say this won’t make every editor think for a minute going forward, but the assault on expression is too great,” Callaway said. “If it’s news, we publish.”
Added Callaway: “Some of the reaction to the cartoons might be more powerful. But yes, we are considering, as we would anything that is newsworthy.”
The free expression vs. violent reaction debate was particularly pointed for Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, a British publication. In a series of tweets after the Paris killings, Pollard argued for not publishing.
“Easy to attack papers for not showing cartoons,” he tweeted. “But here’s my editor’s dilemma. Every principle I hold tells me to print them . . . what right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point?”