Drawing the Line on Offensive Images

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of The Washington Post talks with Debbie Elliott about the decisions editors must make when potentially offensive cartoons cross their desks.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:

Here in the U.S., newspapers have been debating whether to reprint the cartoons and the state department weighed in yesterday. Here's spokesman Curtis Cooper.

Mr. CURTIS COOPER (State Department spokesman): Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief. But it is important that we also support the rights of individuals to express their freely held views.

ELLIOT: We turn now to the man who exercises editorial control over political cartoons at the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt. Welcome to the program.

Mr. FRED HIATT (Editorial page editor, The Washington Post): Hi, how are you?

ELLIOT: Good. Let's start with the cartoons depicting Muhammad. Many European papers have reprinted them, saying that they want to underscore the importance of press freedom. Yet American papers have not been so quick to follow suit. Can you give us your perspective on what could be going on the editorial board rooms around the country?

Mr. HIATT: Well I think, you know, I can't speak for everyone, but I think probably most editorial boards support the right to publish the cartoons that the Danish newspaper believes its fighting for but that's not quite the same as deciding that the cartoons themselves are worth publishing.

ELLIOT: But wouldn't it make sense to print one of these images just so that readers could get a sense of what the controversy is about in the context of a news story?

Mr. HIATT: If a news editor thought that the story couldn't be understood without illustration, then it might well be justifiable to say even though we know it's going to offend some people, because our readers can't understand the controversy otherwise. In this case, my feeling is, if you say there was a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad and it showed his headdress as a bomb, and you explain that Muslims, in general, find any depiction of Muhammad to be a blasphemy, that really explains everything a reader needs to know and you don't advance the story very much by reprinting the picture itself. You know, when faced with similar cartoons that were inflammatory in their religious imagery in the past, I've hesitated to use them.

ELLIOT: Are religious images somehow different than say, strictly political images?

Mr. HIATT: No, political images can also be, I mean, we're in the middle of a controversy ourselves right now over a Toles cartoon involving Rumsfeld and the Army that the Joint Chiefs of Staff found offensive.

ELLIOT: You're referring to the cartoon by Tom Toles depicts a war amputee with Donald Rumsfeld as a doctor and Rumsfeld tells the patient, I'm listing your condition as battle-hardened. And you've gotten a lot of criticism saying this was callous and beyond tasteless. I'd like to know as an editor, is there also some responsibility to take into account how people might react, what the consequences of publication might be when you're making these decisions.

Mr. HIATT: There certainly is a responsibility. You know, if you look at some of the protests of these Danish cartoons. A lot of the people in the Muslim majority countries are demanding that the Danish government apologize. And now that governments in other countries where newspapers have published them apologized; and I think that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the press works in this country and in Western Europe. It may partly be because in a lot of Muslim majority countries like, Egypt, the government does control much of the press. And when newspapers there publish anti-Semitic cartoons, for example, it's not unfair to hold the government responsible.

In our country, the government can't tell me not, or to, publish a particular cartoon. But the freedom to publish something that's offensive means there's also a responsibility not to publish something that's gratuitously offensive. And I, you know, I think, that's something we have to wrestle with every day.

ELLIOTT: But beyond the whole idea that it might be gratuitously offensive, do you take, you know, step that out a little bit further and say what consequences might this provoke? Or is that a dangerous place to go?

Mr. HIATT: It's a slippery slope. You know, obviously, there are times when a newspaper has to think about what are the consequences of publishing, you know? Particularly that comes up if there's a government secret and/or, you know, particularly during wartime. And the government says the consequences of publication are going to be harmful to our troops. I mean that's the most basic example. And The Post and most newspapers would take that into account.

In general, I think, you can't go too far down the road of saying this could have this consequence, or somebody is going to feel hurt about this. And therefore, we should be careful about that. Because on the opinion page, our job is to present a broad range of responsible, provocative commentary. And we have to judge pieces and cartoons by how well they further that aim. And when you start spending a lot of time second-guessing yourself about what effect it's going to have, I think you begin to limit your role.

ELLIOTT: Fred Hiatt is editorial page editor at The Washington Post.

Thank you.

Mr. HIATT: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: NPR has decided not to post the cartoons on its website. Our Acting Vice President for News, Bill Marimow, says that because the cartoons are so highly offensive to millions of Muslims, it's preferable to refer to them in words. He says that the audience can, through our reports on radio and the web, get a very detailed sense of what's depicted in the cartoons. The decision was made in consultation with the website's editors.

Just ahead on All Things Considered, a visit to the real Uncle Tom's Cabin.

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