Don’t Be Afraid

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Lots of news organizations in this country have decided not to run Danish cartoons that offended some Muslims. Protesters have been so outraged by the cartoons (which were reprinted in some European newspapers, rekindling the controversy) that they have gone on a rampage around the world. At least two people were killed in Afghanistan attacking a U.S. airbase, even though this country had nothing to do with the cartoons. In Somalia, a rioting teenage boy was killed by police. In Iran, the Danish embassy was pelted with incendiary devices. In Syria, Norway’s embassy was set on fire. And so on. In Afghanistan, one of the protesters blamed the cartoons on the US-led war on terror. “They want to test our feelings. They want to know whether Muslims are extremists or not. Death to them and their newspapers,” he told the BBC.

The extreme reaction to the cartoons has stunned journalists and whole nations. The Muslim outburst seemed out of proportion. Iran’s largest newspaper, for example, started a contest to invite cartoonists to create cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

It concerns us that, once the controversy erupted, so few news organizations in this country showed any of the offending images. Fox News, to its credit, showed a few of the cartoons, so that its stories would have context, and so did the BBC. ABC News showed one, once, for the same reason. CNN did not, explaining in a statement that “the network believes its role is to cover the events surrounding the publication of the cartoons while not unnecessarily adding fuel to the controversy itself.” (Wolf Blitzer did show a blurry image of one of the cartoons, however.) NBC and CBS said they thought they could tell the story without showing the cartoons.

The profession of journalism, rather than the business of it, means news organizations risk offending viewers or readers. “This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do,” said Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which ran one cartoon on page A-6. “We’re running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy’s about, not to titillate, and we have done that with a whole wide range of images throughout our history.”

No doubt, other honorable stewards of journalism deliberated and, in most cases, decided that showing the cartoons could be offensive to some readers or viewers. What we worry about are the news organizations that demurred from running the cartoons out of fear. The First Amendment gives the American press the right to say and do what it wants, even if it is offensive. It also gives publishers, editors and news directors the right to decide to withhold news or information when it deems that the wisest route. We hope that, in every instance, the decision to show, or not show, the cartoons was based on those journalistic concepts. Freedom of the press involves making tough decisions, not running away from them.

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