Media Matters

Fear and Cowering in the Press

Must American media behave like scared kittens?

By 2.7.06

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How much of the American media's unwillingness to show the cartoon images of Islam's prophet has been out of respect for Islam, how much an inflated sense of political correctness, and how much out of sheer cowardice?

All of the evidence points to the latter. Time and again the American media has demonstrated its zero tolerance policy toward world religions, with one notable exception. Indeed, the press seems to enjoy goading and provoking Christians as much as the early Romans did. Granted, the Western press was for a time reluctant to portray Jews negatively in recompense for its silence during the Holocaust. But today one need only substitute the word "Israeli" or "Zionist" for Jew and it is again open season.

The Western media today mocks Catholics and Protestants with the regularity of a bass note in a Bach fugue, and it does so to boost its credibility as independent and enlightened, and because it has little to fear in return. The worst one can expect are a few letters to the editor, a scolding from Pat Robertson, or a poorly attended protest march, as when an art gallery exhibits photos of a crucifix submerged in urine, a portrait of a nude Jesus with an erection, or a "blasphemous" film like Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ debuts.

No major American or European newspaper that I am aware of has ever shied away from running editorial cartoons portraying Christian fundamentalists or Intelligent Design proponents as backward bumpkins. Jesus of Nazareth pops up frequently in editorial cartoons, as do pedophile priests, and gay-bashing pastors. Religious attacks are so common that readers would question the independence of newspapers if they suddenly refused to run, say, a pope cartoon. So it was curious to see the New York Times come out this week with its absurd comment that "news organizations...usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols." The Times then ran an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer's editor Amanda Bennett in which she is quoted as saying, "There's been a whole history of newspapers publishing things that people would find controversial and offensive." The Inquirer is the only major American paper to reprint a Mohammed cartoon.

It is a fundamental Western tenet that no religion is above criticism and critique. And that includes Islam especially, often described as the world's dumbest religion. Not simply because of its base treatment of women, but because of its antipathy toward Western civilization and freedoms, and all in the name of Allah and his prophet. You want to talk about intolerance? The latter's words are often used to justify hatred, backwardness, repression and terror against Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sunnis against Shias and vice versa. All of this should be great fodder for editorial cartoonists. And yet when it comes to Islam editorial departments have been self-censoring themselves for decades. Mostly out of fear. Here's a new definition of "futile": Trying to find an artist to illustrate a book on the prophet Mohammed.

Had the cartoons portrayed Mohammed raping a pig or something equally offensive, I, too, would have objected and denounced the newspapers as being unnecessarily childish and provocative, though I still would have defended their right to do so. But they did no such thing. The cartoons were truthful, at least as truthful as one can be in caricature. The worst of the drawings showed the prophet with a bomb for a cap, which seemed to say something about the link between Mohammed and his suicide bomber followers. It was as legitimate a criticism of Islam and its fanatical adherents that I have seen (particularly since you never see such things).

GRANTED THE MEDIA is right to be afraid. There have been riots, rampages, death threats, and bomb threats arriving daily at the offices of Jyllands-Posten. Editors remember all too well how filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally butchered in the streets of neighboring Holland, and how the novelist Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding. And there is the very real fear the editor might get fired, as happened at the French paper France Soir. Publishers have a duty to provide their employees with a safe environment, but certainly this can be accomplished without giving in to self-censorship.

It is discouraging to the see the media behaving like scared kittens. You expect that from diplomats and State Department types who make their living sucking up to foreign heads of state, but reporters and editors are traditionally folks who crave adventure, if not danger. The best journalists have been war correspondents at one time or other in their careers, because war makes for great stories, thus competition to cover one is understandably intense. Others, like the fearless Woodward and Bernstein, have taken on and brought down the most powerful leaders in the free world.

The one phrase that reappeared in the American media went something like this: "X newspaper has decided not to show the images out of respect for Islam." Now there was a phrase I hadn't come across before, and one strangely absent when Christianity is mocked. On Sunday I listened to Sam Donaldson sum up the left's position in his usual empty cliche-speak: "Yes, we have a right to blaspheme, but that doesn't make it right." Funny you never heard Sam resorting to such logic to denounce anti-Christian works. In those instances it was a matter of freedom of expression, of the artists' duty to provoke and shock his audience.

It is equally disturbing then to see a poll by CNN International in which 91 percent of a total of 301,574 online readers/viewers said newspapers were wrong to publish cartoon Mohammed. (We don't know what kind of response the question would have received on the American edition of CNN because there the poll question was the idiotic: Would you donate your face for a transplant? You can check the results yourself.) Apparently these internationales are unable to distinguish between legitimate "criticism of a belief system and slander against a people," to use Christopher Hitchens' phrase. In the interest of world peace, then, allow to provide an example: "Islam is the dumbest religion because it treats women like chattel," is an example of the first. "All Muslims are terrorists," is the second.

Far more heartening is an opinion poll that showed 79 percent of Danes think their government should not issue an apology, and 62 percent say Jyllands-Posten should not apologize (too late, too late).

As for J-P offending millions of people, well, what of it? The Western press offends millions of Christians all of the time. Don't Muslims deserve to be offended too? How long shall the Western press continue to give Muslims free conduct to spread their medieval superstitions unchallenged? Globalization is rapidly bringing the West and its freedoms into conflict with Islam and its intolerance. One side will have to give. So far it looks like the West is giving in willingly.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.