The new, defiant issue of Charlie Hebdo was published yesterday and sold out around Paris before dawn. The press run of 3 million copies is expected to jump to 5 million today—about fifty times the usual for the satirical magazine, which hovers close to bankruptcy—and CNN reported that single copies are selling for up to $1,700 on eBay.
With that kind of massive popularity you might think that The New York Times and other media outlets that last week, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, refused to publish Hebdo covers featuring the prophet Muhammad might now reverse course and print the new cover: Muhammad shedding a tear, holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, under the words “All is forgiven.”
At first glance, the image seems sweet, Muslim-friendly and poetically ambiguous: Is the prophet sorrowfully forgiving the terrorists for defying Islam’s peaceful tenets or Charlie Hebdo for mocking him all these years? Or both? If anything, the cover seems to portray him as a wise granter of forgiveness, like Jesus, and more caring than, say, an earlier Hebdo cover Muhammad who cracked, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”
But of course any image of Muhammad is offensive to many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and so the Times—the media outlet most critics are thinking about when they charge the MSM with cowardice for not running the toons—is holding to its standards and will not run what executive editor Dean Baquet calls a “gratuitous insult” to Muslim readers.
“At what point does news value override our standards?” public editor Margaret Sullivan quoted Baquet last week. “‘You would have to show the most incendiary images’ from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.” In her column yesterday, Sullivan adds:
Mr. Banquet made a tough call, which also includes safety concerns for Times staff, especially those in international posts. (Those concerns are far from frivolous; just days ago, a German newspaper’s office was firebombed after it published the cartoons following the attack, and now new concerns have arisen about reprisals.)
But after previously withholding judgment, Sullivan broke with Baquet and said, reflecting the verdict of many readers, staff and outside critics, that the Times should go ahead and publish the new cartoon:
The new cover image of Charlie Hebdo is an important part of a story that has gripped the world’s attention over the past week.
The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive. And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value.
With Charlie Hebdo’s expanded press run of millions of copies for this post-attack edition, and a great deal of global coverage, the image is being seen, judged and commented on all over the world. Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find it.
But why not? Why, exactly, shouldn’t Times readers have to go elsewhere?
You can say that’s denying the readers the news, but who in the world reads only the Times?
The list of stories, ads and specific words the Times won’t publish is long. The Times has been doing this forever, and people have been complaining about it forever, it’s their stock in trade.
Why shouldn’t there be a space in American journalism where certain borders aren’t crossed, where editors strain, however awkwardly, not to inflame one side or the other, and where everyone is a Mr. or a Ms? One reason people buy the Times is to see their rather gentrified worldview, whether they agree with it or not, and most of its readers know the paper’s limits—they don’t write fearlessly about New York real estate, for instance, or, like most publications, their own advertisers; they don’t run semi-nudes or beheading photos. You can get all that elsewhere (the semi-nudes, to my surprise, can be gotten on the homepage of the conservative Daily Caller).
The Times is establishment media, which begets alternative media, like Charlie, or The Nation, or the Daily Caller, or any of the thousands of other alts on the Internet.
The Times needs to be pushed and questioned on this, absolutely, but I’m not sure it hasn’t come up with the right answer for itself for now—cover the hell out of the story and describe but don’t reproduce the cartoons.
Anyway, the Times’s real problem isn’t their sins of omission so much as commission: publishing Judy Miller’s stories, for example, which helped trick us into invading Iraq, or instigating a fruitless and destructive Whitewater investigation, or until very recently, using words like “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh CIA methods” instead of “torture” to describe what American forces were doing at black sites around the world.
To publish or not to publish Charlie’s Mohammad cartoons has become an instant litmus test to see who has political balls. Since the January 7 attacks, Tucker Carlson and other conservatives have been taunting the Times, CNN, the New York Daily News, among other media, as “cowards” and unprincipled for going cartoonless. (Much as the right dared Obama to screen The Interview in the White House before it was finally released online.) Fueling some of the taunts are thinly veiled incitements to crackdown on Muslims.
The really interesting aspect of the Times’s cartoonoclasm is the way this issue has scrambled right and left. An exception to the right’s newfound free-speech absolutism is Joe Scarborough, who today defended NBC’s and MSNBC’s decision to be like Baquet, saying, “If showing a cartoon offends well over a billion Muslims—who are not violent, but who are just as offended by that as I would be offended by seeing a picture of a crucifix in a jar of urine—why, I guess, do it? Just tell people they can find it online.” After all, initially even Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and The Wall Street Journal abstained from showing the pictures, but both have come around for Charlie’s new issue.
Of course, many of us on the left have also gone after the Times for being flaccid on free speech, like in this classic between Baquet and Marc Cooper (in which Baquet resorted to an alternative media venue, Facebook, to use another word banned by the Times, “asshole”). Most all media have restrained themselves from showing the cartoons that can be interpreted—somewhat mistakenly, says Vox—as virulently racist or Islamophobic.
But as threats against Muslims increase in Europe and here—and as Charlie is for the moment the apple of the world’s eye—it’s important for media on all sides to circulate the lefty Charlie’s anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic images, like this one from “The Charlie Hebdo cartoons no one is showing you”:
As ProgNet notes in Daily Kos: “This cartoon by Cabu criticizes racial profiling, specifically discrimination by the French police against immigrants from North Africa and people of African descent. The caption reads: ‘No to racist controls [identity checks].’”