Muhammad Cartoons: Strong Listener Response

My last column, concerning NPR's handling of the 'Muhammad cartoon' controversy, generated a large response from visitors to NPR's Web site.

This cartoon first appeared some months ago in a Danish newspaper. It appears to show the Prophet Muhammad as an advocate for violence. NPR listeners, who heard about the implications of the cartoon's impact, clearly expected more from the network. The majority who have contacted me are convinced that NPR should have posted the offending cartoon on its site.

But NPR's vice president of news, Bill Marimow stated that:

...the cartoon is so highly offensive to millions of Muslims that it's preferable to describe it in words rather than posting it on the Web. In this case, I believe that our audience can, through 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.

Of the hundreds who wrote to me, more than 70 percent insisted that NPR was wrong not to show the cartoon, while 20 percent agreed that NPR did the right thing in not reprinting any of the drawings to avoid exacerbating tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. The remaining 10 percent expressed frustration over being forced to choose between the two legitimate values — freedom of speech and religious tolerance — that now seem to be in conflict.

I appreciate these e-mails because they so passionately express, in different ways, the listeners' commitment to a news media that exists to serve this democracy and the sense of agonizing concern that the "Muhammad cartoon" has evoked.

This issue will likely not go away soon, nor should it, since it speaks to the core values of American journalism. But for now, the last words should go to the listeners:

'Where Fear Rules'

Once again, violence intimidates, religious fundamentalism intimidates. Of all the institutions in this country I thought I could trust NPR to not be intimidated. I am saddened to be wrong. Democracy cannot survive without a free and unintimidated press. Sadly, even our best and brightest institutions fail us in times where fear rules.

John Jaster

'Disappointed'

After giving the topic much thought and moving from "display 'em" to "no need to display 'em" and back to "display 'em," my reasoning is that a link on the NPR site, with an appropriate disclaimer, would display the usual respect you show your listeners.

The cartoons, which I found through Slate, helped me understand the issue more fully.

Susan Prince

'No Backbone…'

Most of the U.S. media, including NPR, have shown no backbone... The cartoons are the story. It shows that defending freedom of the press, something NPR, among many other news media, have vehemently done on many occasions, is only done when it's easy and will not bring repercussions against the party involved.

E. Hobbs

Respect for Beliefs…

Thank you, NPR, for not printing the cartoon that offended so many Muslims. I am an evangelical Christian who lived in Saudi Arabia so I am fanatical about freedom of speech! However, I am not fanatical about deliberately trashing someone else's religious beliefs.

Kathy Fisher

Unbiased Source?

NPR prides themselves on being an unbiased source of news, yet (you) take the view that the risk of upsetting Muslims, is more important than the rights of… listeners to see the cartoons.

Ian Moss

Satire Is Valued

I am deeply disappointed in the choice not to show the cartoons. In the free world press, political satire is expected and valued. In the free press news, facts and pictures of the good, bad and ugly are the news. The response only points out [how] an unopen society cannot absorb opinions of others, no matter how distasteful.

Marlene Effren

'Agree with NPR…'

I agree with NPR's decision not to show or link to the now-infamous cartoons sparking violent reactions overseas. Your point about free speech as achieving a journalistic goal is well-put and lacking in most discussions of this topic. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but there's a point where a message can be so offensive to a certain audience — whether or not we agree with their interpretation or their reaction (which is at this point 'ridiculously violent') — that it ceases to be a representation of free speech that actually does something for the people.

Doug Merritt

'Not the Least Bit Offensive...'

I am a Norwegian and have seen the cartoons. They are not the least bit offensive compared to other depictions of, let's say, Jesus, that have been printed throughout time. Seeing the cartoons will shock people, for if those innocent cartoons are considered blasphemous, then nothing questioning Islam should by implication be printed. Without the publication of the cartoons no fully informed decision can be made by your readers. You say that one should not publish lest one hurt religious feelings; I say that one cannot grant tactfulness to irrational feelings, for by doing so one sanctions the ideas behind those feelings and the aggressors who respond with violence instead of peaceful discourse.

Harald Waage

'Slap in the Face'

Your decision not to publish the images is a slap in the face of everyone who believes in tolerance and peaceful protest of offensive images. It encourages violence and extremism. It teaches the struggling, nascent democracies in the Islamic world a terrible lesson about how the press should function…

Please, please reconsider this well-intentioned but misguided decision. I believe it is more harmful than you have realized.

Eric Gottlieb

'The Proper Decision'

I do not understand the religious basis that drives the reaction to the 12 cartoons. I probably never will. I suspect that the violent reaction has more to do with radical Islam's political agenda. That said, I believe NPR's decision not to show the cartoons that would surely offend even mainstream Muslims was the proper decision. Your actions have not diminished my understanding of the cartoon problem, just avoided offending Muslims.

Alan Head

'Newsworthy'

I have a lot of respect and agreement about your comments concerning not publishing the... cartoons. It seems ironic that in the Western world only the U.S. and British citizens are denied easy access and yet we went to war for freedom in the Middle East.

Richard Sheppard

'Not a License to Insult'

Your words on the Muhammad cartoons are about as wise as I've read to date. Thank you. Freedom of speech is not a license to insult or offend. Given the hyper-hysterical atmosphere surrounding this entire nasty business, some reassuring wisdom is a welcome respite. Well said.

Don Nash

'Cop-Out'

I've just read the article about NPR's reasons for not publishing the "offensive" Danish cartoons. The reasons were clear, but I still think it was a "cop-out" on NPR's part. Just as in the past when movies were condemned in this country by various religious groups, I applauded the theaters that continued to show these films, so I could make up my own mind about their content.

Matthew Zivich

'Accepting... Differences'

Does NPR really wish to establish as policy for selecting content the avoidance of material that may cause offense because it is against the beliefs of one group or another? True respect, like real democracy and journalism, means working through and accepting legitimate differences and offenses, not avoiding them.

Michael Groen

'Did the Responsible Thing'

I think NPR (and to a good extent, the American press) did the responsible thing by not reproducing the cartoons. While I agree that media has the "right" to publish them, it also should bear the ramifications in mind. As you pointed out, publishing the cartoons in this case does much more to inflame the tensions (it shouldn't ideally, but we are not in an ideal world) than to advocate for the free speech cause. I am proud of this mature stand by NPR... and thanks to your column for upholding it!

Sam Kay

'A Loyal Listener... No More'

I have been a loyal listener to NPR for close to two decades. But no more. I learned last evening (Feb. 6, 2006) during one of your broadcasts that NPR would not be posting pictures of the cartoons that have caused such a violent reaction in the Muslim world. Given the growing uproar, it would seem incumbent on NPR to post these images on its Web site, not for any inherent value these cartoons have, but for the simple fact the images have become NEWS.

Martin Lawson

With the Danes

You should be standing together with the Danes against these savage attacks.

Michael Brown

Vile Posters

I am surprised that in all of the coverage of the riots in the Islamic world following the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad that I have heard on NPR (and I am a regular listener) that no one has mentioned the vile posters (regularly visible in network TV and cable news broadcasts) that plaster walls in cities throughout the Muslim world. Surely it is an important bit of the context of these riots that they occur in societies whose citizens seem to be utterly untroubled by posters that resemble anti-Semitic propaganda in 1930s Germany.

Jim Coonan

March to Moderation

One of the axioms of Western [views on] rights and responsibilities is that "your rights stop where the other fellow's nose begins." Much has been made about the view that a democratically driven march toward moderation in the Middle East is a decades-long process. Taken to the long view, this road may have to be trod for up to a century before we can see widespread emergence of governments of, by, and for the people, if they ever emerge at all.

Bruce Sanford

My thanks to all the NPR listeners, Web site visitors and NPR journalists who took the time to share their thoughts and feelings with me on this very challenging and disturbing issue.

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