Sunday, August 23, 2009

Such Bravery....

The Washington Post's editorial page criticizes Yale University Press for declining to include illustrations in a forthcoming book:
The scholarly work in question is Jytte Klausen's "Cartoons that Shook the World," a book about the 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad whose 2005 appearance in a Danish paper ignited a worldwide controversy. Yale University Press is publishing it in the fall -- or some of it. Not just the picture of the newspaper's controversial page of cartoons but all of the book's illustrations, which include a historical range of artistic depictions of the prophet, will be omitted. Why? Because what the Press described as a group of "counterterrorism officials . . . U.S. diplomats . . . foreign ambassadors from Muslim countries . . . and senior scholars in Islamic studies" -- without so much as reading the book -- deemed them too inflammatory to publish.
The Post asks, rhetorically,
If one of the world's most respected scholarly publishers cannot print these images in context in an academic work, who can?
Sometimes, though, a rhetorical question deserves an answer. Who could publish those images? The Washington Post could. So let's travel back in time:
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....

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."
Then-Ombudsman Deborah Howell provided further explanation,
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.
But that only explains why they weren't run on the news pages. What about the editorial page?
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?"
What was that? Let's back up for a minute. So we have John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, explaining that
the recommendation to withdraw the images, including the historical ones of Muhammad, was “overwhelming and unanimous.” The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, Mr. Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous.
We have Fred Hiatt, back in 2006, justifying his parallel decision not to run the cartoons because they did not "add much to any important debate" and "were easily explainable in words"... you know, essentially what Donatich is saying. And now he's running an unsigned editorial accusing Yale of "self-censorship" that "establishes a dangerous precedent" and allows "violent extremists to set the terms of free speech". Pot, kettle, and all that.

With all due respect to Fred Hiatt, the issue here in no small part results from decisions like his own, justified on pretty much the same grounds as those offered by Yale University Press, to not run the cartoons. Had he and others in similar positions of editorial discretion run the cartoons, the issue would likely be over. The cartoons would be everywhere, and nobody reproducing them would have to feel like they were painting a target on their own (or their author's) forehead.1 There would be nothing special or newsworthy about their decision. Yale's decision may well be self-censorship that empowers extremists but, if so, the Post's decision not to run the cartoons when the issue was white hot was at least as culpable.

1. I have seen some comments that suggest Donatich was worried about his own safety, but I very much doubt that. We have a historic parallel in The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah was directed at Rushdie, not his editor, publishing house, or anybody associated with his publishing house.

1 comment:

  1. Gee - hypocrisy from the MSM . . . where's the news there?



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