Without YouTube or LiveLeak, the world might only hear or read about the disturbing new anti-Muslim, Dutch video, "Fitna."
Now just about anyone can see the 17-minute movie that some consider more inflammatory in Muslim-majority countries than the Danish cartoons that sparked riots in 2006.
In the pre-Internet world, the so-called mainstream media played the role of gatekeeper: determining with authority what the public did and did not need to know. Much more editorial censorship existed. But now the public can get any information it wants through the Web — with or without the news media's guidance. Everything — in good taste or bad — gets out in cyberspace.
One issue that arises for NPR is whether the network should provide direct links to potentially offensive material it reports on.
And that includes the video, "Fitna," which is Arabic for "conflict" or "dissension." In today's world, it is more difficult to access an article in the Wall Street Journal than to watch "Fitna," which claims that Islam is as serious a threat to western civilization as fascism once was. Released on March 27, it's available through a few hoops on YouTube, LiveLeak and Google.
On March 28, Morning Edition ran a two-minute piece on the outpouring of anger in the Netherlands over "Fitna," which the Dutch government urged filmmaker and legislator Geert Wilders not to show. "There's a right of religion, and there's a right to the freedom of speech," Christiaan Kroner, Dutch ambassador to the U.S. said on NPR, "there's no such thing as the right to insult people."
Wilders claims the Quran is similar to Hitler's Mein Kampf and is really a how-to guide for terrorists. The short film begins with a cartoon of a Muslim with a ticking bomb tucked into his turban. Throughout an array of still images of terrorist attacks are Quran verses saying such things as Allah is "happy" when non-Muslims are killed.
The "Fitna" controversy is similar to the 2006 wave of violent protests that erupted after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that many Muslims considered blasphemous.
Clearly, news organizations are obligated to do stories on both these controversies. NPR covered the "Fitna" release with an interview, and All Things Considered did an earlier five-minute piece on March 9 about how the Netherlands was worried about the film's impact. Even before the video appeared, 15,000 people protested in Afghanistan.
But in doing such stories, is NPR then obligated to make it easy to find "Fitna" or the cartoons by providing a direct link? Or is it enough to describe them and let the listener find them on the Web?
"Should media outlets showcase the work or not?" asked Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More on April 2. "Is there a greater responsibility to circulate controversial ideas even if they give offense? Or to protect known sensibilities as a gesture of respect in a diverse society?"
NPR decided in 2006 to not run the cartoons because they were "highly offensive to millions of Muslims," said former NPR vice president for news, Bill Marimow. "In this case, I believe that our audience can, though our reports —on radio and the Web — get a very detailed sense of what's depicted in the cartoon. By not posting it on the Web, we demonstrate a respect for deeply held religious beliefs."
Hundreds wrote to the former ombudsman about NPR's refusal to post the cartoon. About 70 percent said NPR was wrong to act as a gatekeeper.
When the "Fitna" video appeared, NPR editors decided not to link directly to it on NPR's Web site.
"We basically followed the precedent from last time this was an issue — the cartoons that depicted Mohammed," said Bruce Auster, senior supervising editor for Morning Edition. "At that time, I believe the judgment was that the cartoons were available, through a simple Google search, to anyone interested in seeing them. Adding a link to NPR didn't make them any more available. That was the logic then, and it seemed to apply in this case as well."
When a controversial video such as "Fitna," the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, or even the recent teenage girls' staged beatings, news organizations need to ask:
* What is the journalistic value?
* What is appropriate? What is acceptable?
* Who will be harmed?
* What are our ethical concerns?
* How can we put this in context to better inform our audience?
The Society for Professional Journalist's ethics code says that headlines, graphics and video should not misrepresent, oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
NPR's job is to inform people responsibly about events at home and abroad. NPR was correct in not directly linking to "Fitna," especially when the video can be easily found by taking a few extra steps. It is not NPR's practice to always provide outside links for stories it covers.
Day to Day discussed the controversy on March 28 and I appeared on Tell Me More when the show used the video's release to ask when, if ever, media censorship is appropriate.
NPR could use "Fitna's" release to educate listeners about the strong anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of Islam across Europe.
Filmmaker Wilders is a member of the Dutch parliament. One might disagree with him, but it's important for Americans to understand how his views are shared in Europe and particularly in The Netherlands, which has one of Europe's fastest growing immigrant populations from Muslim countries.
The news media should not exaggerate or promote hateful speech, but it is worth continuing to explore why it exists.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Is NPR obligated to provide a direct link to "Fitna?" Or is it good enough to just describe the video and let the listener find it on the Web?