TOPICS > Nation

Journalists Debate the Publishing of Offensive Cartoons

February 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: The cartoons published in a Danish paper appeared originally in September and were recently reprinted in many European papers as a show of free expression solidarity.

In the U.S., the cartoons have appeared in just a handful of American news outlets, with one image in particular being shown, that of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban.

Among larger newspapers, the Austin American Statesman ran the cartoon last Friday inside the paper. On Saturday it appeared in the Philadelphia Enquirer. And this past Tuesday it ran in the Rocky Mountain News.

On television, Fox News ran it once last Sunday. And ABC News ran a modified version of it last week. On the NewsHour last Thursday, a report by Independent Television News showed people in Europe looking at two of the cartoons.

Many other news organizations have decided against running the images: among newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today. And on television, NBC News, CBS News, and CNN have not aired the cartoons.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to discuss the cartoons issue, we’re joined by: Robert Rosenthal, vice president and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; Jerry Ceppos, former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and vice president of news for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain; and Geneva Overholser, a professor of journalism for the University of Missouri, and previously editor of the Des Moines Register and ombudsman at the Washington Post.

And welcome to all of you.

Robert Rosenthal, starting with you, you chose not to show the cartoons. Why not?

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Well, we made a decision here that we felt we could describe it in words. And we also made an attempt on the first day to purchase the cartoon from the Danish newspaper – magazine, excuse me – and actually because of the time difference, there was nobody in their office. So that gave us 24 hours where we had to wait and get back to them.

And by that time, we ran a picture of people in Europe looking at it, being the cartoons in a European newspaper. We also felt that the description in words worked. And at that point, it would have been, we felt, gratuitous to run it in the sense that the news story was breaking, it was out there, the reason for the rioting in the Muslim world was very clear. And we knew that some segments of our community would find it very offensive.

It doesn’t mean we haven’t printed or published pictures in the past that we knew might offend people. But in this case, really the decision was made, that as I said, it was probably going to be a little gratuitous and that words were sufficient to describe what was really setting people off.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jerry Ceppos, you wrote an opinion piece criticizing U.S. news organizations for not running the cartoons. What is your argument?

JERRY CEPPOS: Well, it seems to me that the very highest calling of journalism is to explain complex issues. This is certainly a complex issue. And, by definition, you can’t possibly explain a raging debate about cartoons if you don’t show the cartoons.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so what did you want — you wanted them to show them in some context or what would be the right way to do it?

JERRY CEPPOS: Yes, context is exactly the right word. You know, journalists are terrible about explaining themselves to readers and viewers. And context is the key. I would run the pictures, the cartoons, inside. I would write a note on the front page or at the start of a broadcast, saying here is why we’re doing what we’re doing, and you might find them offensive so this is a warning.

But, you know, readers and viewers are not stupid. By definition, they wouldn’t be looking for the news if they were stupid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Geneva Overholser, what do you see as the key issues here, and is this a lively debate in newsrooms across the country?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Absolutely. Jeff, I think this is the toughest one that I can remember seeing. And I’m just glad I’m not an editor at this moment.

You know, we are talking here about the clash of two really important tenets. And one is that we, in journalism in this country believe in telling the truth, not letting anyone suppress the truth, being forthright, giving the reader or the viewer the full story. But the other tenet is this very profound Islamic view that you don’t picture the Prophet Mohammed and certainly that you don’t picture him in negative situations.

And so, what an editor has to do, and this happens all the time, editors weigh, you know, I want to tell the truth and yet I don’t want to offend gratuitously. So you have to think about how much truth-telling you can do here and how much harm you can do if you run the images.

I honestly believe that it is a more complex world today and that these decisions are a lot harder than they were when I was an editor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Rosenthal, one of the points that Mr. Ceppos made, was that the cartoons could help us understand the cultural factors at stake that Geneva just brought up.

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: I actually disagree with that because I was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East in my past and worked and reported with Muslim fundamentalists.

I think what this really shows to me is also this incredible, which we are aware of inside, this cultural divide between our values and the Islamic values.

I think for most American audiences and our readers, they would look at this drawing, which we’ve all seen probably by now somewhere, and said, what is the big deal? I’m not sure that would have added to our knowledge of why people of the Muslim faith would be so offended.

And what we tried to do with words is explain why this was offensive and talk to a lot of people, talk to Islamic experts, and wrote about why this was so explosive an issue in the context not only of their religion but also in the politics that are happening in terms of geopolitics.

So I’m not sure that showing an American audience what this was, consulting some of your readers, would have made that much sense because I don’t think most Americans would see anything wrong with this drawing. So that was also part of our discussion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Ceppos, go ahead. Respond to that.

JERRY CEPPOS: Yeah. I’m uncomfortable saying that we shouldn’t show the image to American audiences, because, again, how else are we going to understand them.

Listen, you said at the top of the broadcast that 700,000 Muslims demonstrated in Beirut today. The president of the United States is talking about this issue. He did yesterday. And I’ll bet he’s seen the cartoons. And it just seems to me that they would add greatly to our understanding if they were shown in context.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Ceppos, is it a question of images, is it the power of images over words in this case, that demand to be seen?

JERRY CEPPOS: Sure. You know, it’s not word descriptions that have set off this outrage. If there had been word descriptions somehow without the cartoons, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking today. It’s the actual images. And images often have provoked or almost always provoke more emotions than words do.

Think back to some of the images that are seared into our minds, whether it’s President Kennedy being shot, or a dead soldier being dragged through the streets of Somalia. I mean, there’s a reason that they are emotional. They’re images. They mean more. And that’s exactly what set off the part of the Islamic world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. — go ahead.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I wonder if Jerry, however, would put into context here the question of how offensive these are. We regularly do withhold expletives that we know will offend our readers. If we wanted to tell the whole truth about a quote that someone used, we would need to use them but we regularly withhold them as a matter of taste, for example, or pictures that are simply too gory.

At some point this — we take into consideration that in the context of the Islamic faith, these may be so offensive that they cross that same line that editors regularly cross every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some line is always drawn.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Yes, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a new — you make a case for a new sort of cultural sensitivity, understanding where that line is.


JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Ceppos, is the cultural line changing the way editors need to make decisions?

JERRY CEPPOS: Well, sure. But think about the results of this. Think about the, really, the world changing results in the last few days. And although expletives, Geneva is absolutely right, expletives are deleted all the time, if an expletive caused this type of reaction, I think it’s possible that we would end up running them.

Again, context is the key. Talking to readers and viewers, which we don’t do often, is the key. This is a really, really major event — that goes without saying. We need to help explain it. I don’t know how you explain why these cartoons are so offensive without showing the cartoons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Rosenthal, I did want to ask you one thing because – I wanted to ask about the fear factor. Is that a factor at all in terms of making a decision to run them or not?

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: No. It wasn’t at all — any factor at all. I wanted one other thing, if we go back about a year ago, there was a report out of Guantanamo about a toilet being flushed in the Periscope Section of Newsweek. And that set off rioting that was almost equal to this and protests, and that was about words.

So it’s not just simply the image here that set this off, it’s the, you know, violation of a key, in this case, the prophet, the key prophet, and also in that case it was the Quran, an essential vehicle for Islam. So to me it was a lot more complicated, and I understand what Jerry is saying.

But I also think at the point where we all got into it, which was several days later, that at that point when everyone sort of knew what this was about, you know, that was also part of our decision. And, again, I agree with Geneva, we deal with every day in most newsrooms certain things we’re going to do and not do, with the understanding that they will offend people. Abu Ghraib was an example, some papers in America didn’t publish the pictures initially, some did on their front pages or elsewhere in the paper.

And everybody knew in the newsrooms what those photographs meant, not only in the Muslim world but also to us as Americans what we were doing. So it’s a debate, and I think everybody’s background influences the decision.

I think the fact that I was in the Middle East and understood this, and understood how the cultural divide I talked about, that was part of my decision making.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’ll have to leave it there. Robert Rosenthal, Jerry Ceppos, Geneva Overholser, thank you very much.