Riots sparked by the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper led to sharp debates in American newsrooms in recent days as editors weighed how far to go in covering this important news.
Ultimately, few U.S. publications have reproduced the offending cartoons, which sparked riots across the Muslim world. These protests have resulted in the death of at least five Afghan protesters and the destruction of the Danish Consulate in Lebanon and the Danish Embassy in Syria.
On Monday morning, Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, dropped her kids off at school, went to the gym and soon found protesters right outside her office.
"About 25 people came out," Bennett says. "I came down and met with them. I assured them that neither the paper nor I had any interest in being disrespectful to them or to their religion, and I was actually proud of them exercising their freedom of speech to protest in front of my building."
Bennett's newspaper made the decision to run a cartoon depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. It was one of the most incendiary ones from a series of 12 cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September. Other European papers picked up the cartoons since then and published them, in solidarity with the Danish paper's right to print what it wants. The cartoon in The Philadelphia Inquirer showed a bomb with a lit fuse tucked into the prophet's turban.
Bennett says it was published discreetly — on an inside page, with a note to readers explaining the rationale.
"This had now become a very important news story and there is a power in the image," Bennett says. "And so we wanted people to see what this was all about."
The New York Sun also published two of the cartoons. But few other American news outlets have followed suit. The Associated Press refused to distribute images of the cartoons because they violated standards of taste, the news cooperative said.
Amanda Bennett's counterpart at The Boston Globe is Marty Baron. He says senior Globe editors consulted before deciding against printing the cartoon.
"We are often confronted with images or phrases that are considered to be grossly offensive to a religious group or racial group or ethnic group," Baron says. "Our standard policy is not to publish those phrases or images that are considered to be offensive."
Baron says thorough and balanced coverage does not require the Globe to reproduce the offending image or phrase. To his way of thinking, this is not a question of free speech. He says the newspaper is exercising its own editorial discretion.
"It comes up all the time," Baron says. "This is not an exception. This is, in fact, the general rule."
CBS and NBC did not show the cartoons. Neither did CNN. ABC News did broadcast some footage — once. ABC News spokeswoman Cathie Levine says, "We did show the image the first time we reported it to establish the context, [to] show viewers what sparked the controversy and to frame the issues for discussion." In subsequent reports, she says, ABC simply described the image.
Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate.com, says his online publication doesn't have to think about offending people the way newspapers do.
"I'm glad I don't have to make that same choice," Weisberg says. "I think we simply operate on the Web in a less paternalistic environment. In a newspaper or print magazine there is finite space, and you're making decisions about what you can fit into it and you're inevitably making decisions about what's suitable for your reader."
Weisberg says Slate gives its readers the ability to judge for themselves.
"They want to see what everybody's talking about, and they know if they come to us they're going to be able to find it through us — we're going to have a discussion about it," Weisberg says. "And on the Web, there's the cliché: 'Information wants to be free.' It's going to be there somewhere and we're going to point them to it."
Slate regularly posts controversial editorial cartoons. But Slate didn't include this one on its own site.
"There's the concern at least that even with disclaimers, some people would understand that as saying, 'We, Slate, are endorsing the content of the cartoons,' which is something I felt pretty iffy about doing," Weisberg says.
Instead, as Weisberg explains, Slate provided links to other Web sites with the 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad.
Slate is owned by The Washington Post Company. The Washington Post decided not to print the cartoons – saying it would have violated its standards. Slate produces the show Day to Day in collaboration with National Public Radio. Senior news executives at NPR and its Web site, NPR.org, similarly decided against reproducing the cartoons.