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The Ombudsman Column

Cartoons as News; Are Words Enough?

Once again, the press is in the middle of the news. This time it is the publication in Denmark's largest daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, of a series of cartoons depicting Islam's holiest figure, the prophet Muhammad. One of those depicts Muhammad wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. Another shows him as a blind man wielding a large knife.

The drawings were first published in late September. I won't go into what happened in the months since then, but in January and February more than a dozen European newspapers eventually also published these illustrations, as did a weekly newspaper in Jordan, and a furor erupted in the Muslim world where rioting and the burning of several embassies left about a dozen people dead.

The story presented a big dilemma for American newspapers and television stations. Almost all the major news outlets in this country refrained from reprinting or showing the cartoons, even after they had become the center of a huge global news story and clash of attitudes about religion, culture and the freedom of expression. Most editors and news executives in the U.S. argued that the drawings could be adequately described in words without showing the offensive and offending images. This, many argued, was not self-censorship but rather good editorial judgment.

Two good-sized American newspapers did publish one of the cartoons earlier this month to illustrate stories about the controversy — the Austin American-Statesman in Texas on Feb. 3, and The Philadelphia Inquirer the next day. Amanda Bennett, editor of The Inquirer, said, "This is what newspapers are in the business to do. We educate people. We inform them. We spark discussion. It is not only our profession, it is our obligation."

Editor Rich Oppel in Austin told Editor & Publisher reporter Joe Strupp that "I think it's a close call. There is good reason for sensitivity about a cartoon. On the other hand, we like to inform readers when we can and we were sensitive. We didn't put it on the front page and it was a way of responding to reader interest without rubbing it in the nose of people who take offense." And Oppel added this: "It is one thing to respect other people's faith and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos in the context of our freedoms and our society."

Editor & Publisher also reported that several newspapers showed the cartoons on their Web sites or provided Web links, as did, for example, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. As for television, USA Today reported that while the national TV networks also refrained from using the drawings, that "Fox News Sunday" did air the one depicting the bomb in the turban. Anchor Chris Wallace told the paper, "My feeling was, if we're going to tell the story about people rioting and burning down embassies, it's part of the story to know what it is that has caused such outrage."

What Did PBS Do?

Which brings me to PBS. I thought the network's flagship news program, the nightly "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," handled this admittedly touchy story and imagery just right.

"The NewsHour" broadcast an extended segment on the political cartoon controversy on Feb. 2 as outrage was spreading through both the Muslim world and Europe, and as newspapers in France and elsewhere began to show the drawings that were causing threats to Western governments from Islamic activists.

"The NewsHour" report included an introductory segment by correspondent Jonathan Miller of Britain's "Independent Television News" that filmed spokesmen of Muslim leaders from Denmark showing journalists two of the most offending images. The images, including the one with the bomb and the other with the knife, were clearly visible. The spokesman was making the point that even depicting the image of the prophet is prohibited in Sharia law, and said, "They imagine that our Prophet Muhammad — they are imagining his head as a bomb. This is the source of terrorism. Not anywhere else, but he is the main source for terrorism; that's what they want to say in this picture."

This Feb. 2 PBS segment was aired before any of the U.S. newspapers that eventually did publish the cartoon had done so, and I thought it was the right thing to do and that it was done deftly. It was presented in context, by Muslim spokesmen. It explained why they were so outraged, and it didn't withhold from American viewers the images themselves so that they could form their own judgments. There were no complaints about showing the images, at least that I saw.

Executive Producer Linda Winslow said, "I looked at the Jonathan Miller story when it came in and decided the cartoons were handled responsibly in it, and were necessary to reporting the full story. Since then, however, we haven't aired them again. We have taken the position that we will make that decision on a case-by-case basis from now on: when they are essential to the story, we'll show them, but we won't use them gratuitously." The Feb. 2 program is, however, available on the program's Web site, as it normally is, in streaming video. Still pictures of the drawings from the interview also accompanied the Web transcript, although these were removed after a few days.

My own view is in line with what PBS and those few newspapers that published a drawing within a contextual story did, and especially in line with news organizations that used their Web sites to display one or two of the offending cartoons to those readers or viewers who wished to see them. It seems to me that this is one of the perfect uses for the Web. The drawings do not necessarily have to be printed in newspapers where people come across them randomly whether they like it or not. But making it known that they are available on the Web, where people can be first informed where they are located and then must take specific action to get at them, seems a much better bet than withholding from the public images at the center of a very big story.

Interviewing the Veep

In contrast to "The NewsHour's" handling of the cartoon story, which, as noted above, drew no complaints to my office, there were dozens of viewers who e-mailed me last week to complain about the lengthy "NewsHour" interview with Vice President Dick Cheney on Feb. 7 carried out by the program's host, Jim Lehrer. Officials at WETA in Washington, where the program originates, also said they got hundreds of e-mails, also mostly negative.

"What was the point?" a viewer in Quincy, Ill., wrote. "Mr. Lehrer asked softball questions from which Mr. Cheney just reported non-answers we have heard a million times, or blamed everybody else, or told how right he and Bush do everything. Mr. Lehrer just let Mr. Cheney preach at him as if he was a schoolboy who didn't do his homework. The NewsHour needs a wake-up call."

The main part of the more than 30-minute interview dealt with the legal dispute surrounding the disclosure of the warrantless eavesdropping and surveillance program set in motion by the Bush administration several years ago and carried out by the National Security Agency.

A viewer in Marietta, Ga., said, "Mr. Lehrer has much integrity, and he is capable of probing questions. But the deferential tone in tonight's interview is nauseating. Why didn't Mr. Lehrer ask Mr. Cheney tough questions about the shaky legal assumptions the administration is making on this issue? And what about other issues besides the wireless surveillance? He had the guy on for 30 minutes. Where were the secret energy meetings, illegal torture, the failure of FEMA, the harassment of NASA officials who warned about global warming, etc, etc? All he did was offer Cheney a free 30 minutes to make his case and by failing to critically question him, he thereby legitimized Cheney's pitch."

There were others with the same theme, and several other viewers who asked, "When will I get to hear the other side of this issue so important to my security and rights?" as a viewer in Carmichael, Calif., put it. "Who will you ask to present the relevant points regarding the constitutional issues that this administration (including the vice president) has foisted upon this nation?" this viewer asked.

With respect to this second point, the following evening's program included a lengthy segment, conducted by "The NewsHour's" Gwen Ifill, that laid out the other side. "Vice President Cheney had an extended opportunity to make his case last night," Ifill began. "Tonight we're joined by two members of Congress who have expressed misgivings about the surveillance effort: Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is a member of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, is one of the eight members of Congress briefed on the program."

The point here is simply that daily news coverage frequently needs to be viewed as a continuum; a collection of information that builds over time into a more comprehensive sense of a situation for viewers than what can be conveyed in one shot, even one long interview. In my column of Jan. 23, for example, I wrote about mail from many viewers unhappy that the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, had been given so much time in an interview with Lehrer without a Republican response. Lehrer had pointed out that the Republican leader, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, had also been invited for an interview.

When I asked Winslow about the criticism of the Lehrer interview with Cheney, she said Lehrer's interview technique "is designed to elicit information and explication, not just beat the interviewee over the head with a club on behalf of all the people who would like to do that themselves. His style is designed to leave the interviewee room to finish a thought, elaborate upon an idea, or simply fully respond if so inclined. And, since Jim's forte is to actually listen to the answers and follow up on them, he has to leave many carefully-prepared questions behind when he does that.

"He made a conscious decision to focus on the NSA surveillance story and to get beyond the administration's already established positions, to try to advance the story. Having watched Attorney General Gonzalez's testimony all day Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jim was struck by the attempts Senator Graham and others made to elicit from Gonzalez a willingness to address the constitutional issues raised by the NSA operation; he decided to pursue that idea further with Mr. Cheney, and their exchange on that question did indeed advance the story," she said.

In the aftermath of the interview, Cheney was widely quoted in newspaper and wire service stories as saying — when asked by Lehrer about calls from both Democratic and some Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to work with Congress to sort out differences — that he believed, "I don't think it would necessarily be in the interests of the country especially if we get into a situation where the legislative process leads to the disclosure of sensitive operational matters with respect to this program."

But the next day, in their appearances on "The NewsHour," Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) said the White House had agreed to give the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence "more extensive information" and Rep. Harman, the California Democrat, said, "Well, after hearing the vice president last night on your show, he must have had second thoughts overnight and today things are somewhat different, and I am encouraged."

Now, as for the complaints about the interview. First, Vice President Cheney was invited to appear by "The NewsHour." Secondly, he is clearly a force, a powerful and skilled presenter of the administration's case. Third, there is value in letting him state his case fully and trusting viewers to decide whether it is a convincing one.

Fourth is a matter of full disclosure on my part. I am a devoted watcher and fan of "The NewsHour" and Lehrer. I've been a journalist for 45 years or so and have been watching — and learning from — that program for as long as it's been on the air. So my views about the program generally go quite a bit further back than my not quite three months at PBS. I think Lehrer is a national, and natural, journalistic resource.

On the Other Hand . . .

I wouldn't put this interview in the top 10 all-time-best list, however. But I did think it was better — in its entirety and including other subjects — than did some of those who wrote to me. It did extract and put on the record the fullest explanation of Cheney's views on the surveillance controversy in its current phase; the challenge to executive powers and the role of Congress in making the laws that govern everyone, including the president. Whether one agrees with that position or not, it is valuable to have the fullest and most politically important arguments laid out by this very influential official.

On the other hand, I also have some sympathy with those who felt let down by it, even though some of those e-mailers came at this as partisans and critics of the administration.

I think, for example, that it would have helped to remind viewers early in the questioning that there is a body of opposing opinion, and legal opinion, that argues that the president's authorization of warrantless surveillance is illegal; that it violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that set up a court specifically for approving such surveillance and even allows three days grace to the executive branch in seeking such warrants. For many people in both parties, the issue is whether the president acted illegally. There are very few voices who disagree with the idea of keeping tabs on al Qaeda.

And Cheney twice mentioned in the interview that "everything was fine until there was publicity in The New York Times. Somebody leaked the program to The New York Times, then there was public disclosure of it," he said at one point. At another point he said, "I think we have probably done serious damage to our long-term capabilities in this area because it was printed in The New York Times."

The Times story was published on Dec. 16. But the newspaper actually had that story more than a year earlier and withheld publication in part because the White House had asked that it not be published for security reasons. So the administration has known for much of that time that The Times was working on, and actually had, the story. It would have been interesting to ask Cheney how come the administration did not launch an investigation into the leak a year ago, when it was not public but when it was known that there was a leak, rather than after the fact.

Finally, it is easy to understand frustration among independent-minded viewers over this long interview because this vice president, probably the most powerful and influential in modern American history, has been the assertive presenter of rationales for many of the controversies surrounding the administration, not the least of which was the absolute confidence with which he made the case publicly that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. One wants to see all, or most, of those issues probed at every opportunity. But that is hard to do and may result in previous positions being repeated.

Lehrer is a journalist, not a commentator or columnist, and so, it seemed to me, he was mostly on to the main matter currently at hand — the clash between the executive and legislative branches — and trying to advance that. That's fine, and useful. But Cheney will be a major figure when the history of this time is written and there is, indeed, a long list of questions about his views and role that journalists need to explore, in detail and depth, before the historians.