The New York Times had an editorial Tuesday on the controversy triggered by publication in a Danish newspaper of 12 caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.
"The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them," the editors said. "That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols."
The next day, in a story on the reaction to the Mohammed cartoons, the Times republished, gratuitously, an image of a work of "art" portraying the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung. (The painting by Chris Ofili, "Holy Virgin Mary," was the subject of much controversy when displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999.) In 1989, the Times was one of many newspapers that published an image of "Piss Christ," a photograph by artist Andres Serrano showing Christ on a crucifix submerged in a vat of urine.
Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie told Editor & Publisher he wouldn't publish the Danish cartoons because of "general good taste." Had Mr. Downie developed his good taste a week earlier, the Post might not have published a Tom Toles editorial cartoon of a quadruple amputee soldier so vile all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a letter to the editor protesting it.
Most in the news media don't mind offending people who express their outrage by writing letters to the editor. But when the offended threaten to cut off the editor's head, editors become more "culturally sensitive."
I wish Jyllands-Posten had not published the cartoons. Making fun of what many people believe to be sacred — be it cartoons of Mohammed, Piss Christ or dung Mary — crosses a line I think ought not to be crossed.
But Jyllands-Posten had a valid point to make. An author of a children's book about Mohammed couldn't find an artist willing to illustrate it. Jyllands-Posten wanted to see the extent to which artists were censoring themselves for fear of retaliation from Islamic radicals. It invited Danish editorial cartoonists to "draw Mohammed as they see him."
Threats of violence often produce the results desired. A Swedish company withdrew a textbook on religion because it contained illustrations of the Prophet. The illustrations were from 13th- and 14th-century Iraq and Persia (Iran), which indicates how phony this controversy is.
Jyllands-Posten published 12 illustrations in September 2005, under the headline "The Faces of Mohammed." There were no riots among the many Muslim residents in Denmark. The Egyptian newspaper Al Fager published some of them Oct. 17 (to illustrate an article criticizing them), and there was no rioting.
There is no injunction in the Koran forbidding depictions of Mohammed, wrote Amir Taheri in The Wall Street Journal, who then provided a lengthy list of pictures of the prophet painted by Muslim artists.
"We here in the Middle East have tons of jokes about Allah, the prophets and the angels that are way more offensive, funny and obscene than those poorly made cartoons, yet no one ever got shot for telling one of those jokes," said the Iraqi Web logger Omar.
Only extremist sects like the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia think any depiction of Mohammed is blasphemy. But this isn't reported much, because if it were, it would be clear the media's self censorship is motivated more by cowardice than by conviction.
"Let no one pretend that the reason for this censorship isn't fear," wrote Andrew Bolt in the Melbourne (Australia) Herald Sun.
Bowing to the demands of Islamic radicals undermines Muslim moderates, Mr. Bolt said.
"This refusal to publish does not represent the success of multiculturalism but its failure," he said. "Habits of free speech good enough for generations of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews are too much for Muslims whose anger scares even their leaders."
Media self-censorship deprives readers and viewers of information they need to understand the controversy, said law professor Alan Dershowitz.
"You can't have a story about a cartoon without seeing the cartoon," Mr. Dershowitz said. "In fact, when you see the cartoons ... they are mild in comparison to what's published every day in Islamic fundamentalist newspapers [about Christians and Jews]. ... So you have to see the cartoons to see how outrageous these attacks on the Danish embassies are."
"The point is not whether the cartoon is offensive or not," wrote Don Holland, editor of the Victorville (California) Daily Press, one of a handful of U.S. newspapers to publish the cartoons, in an editorial Wednesday. "The point is it is part of a worldwide news story."
The ultimate price tag for the cowardice and hypocrisy of our news media could be high, wrote Cinnamon Stillwell in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"When free speech is chipped away at in the name of avoiding offense, all else is soon forfeit," she said.