U.S. Media Avoid Publishing Controversial Cartoons While the American press has covered violent protests over the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in European papers, most have declined to publish the cartoons.
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U.S. Media Avoid Publishing Controversial Cartoons

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U.S. Media Avoid Publishing Controversial Cartoons

U.S. Media Avoid Publishing Controversial Cartoons

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Now, in this country, newspaper executives are trying to figure out the best way to cover the story. And as NPR's David Folkenflik explains, few United States publications have reproduced the offending cartoons.


Amanda Bennett is editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Yesterday morning, she dropped her kids off at school, went to the gym, and soon found protests outside her office.

Ms. AMANDA BENNETT (Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer): About 25 people came out this morning. They were in front of the building.

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 that I was actually very proud of them exercising their freedom of speech to protest in front of my building.

FOLKENFLIK: Bennett's newspaper made the decision to run a cartoon depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. It was one of the most incendiary ones from series of 12 cartoons published by a Danish newspaper last September, and picked up by other Europeans papers since then. The cartoon in the Inquirer showed a bomb with a lit fuse tucked into the Prophet's turban.

BENNETT: This had now become a very important news story. And there is a power in the image. And so, we wanted people to see what this is all about.

FOLKENFLIK: Bennett says it was published discreetly on an inside page, with a note to readers explaining the rationale. The New York Sun also published two of the cartoons, but few other American news outlets followed suit. The Associated Press refused to distribute images of the cartoons because, the News Cooperative said, they violated standards of taste.

Marty Baron is Bennett's counterpart at the Boston Globe. He says senior editors consulted before deciding against printing the cartoon.

Mr. MARTY BARON (Editor, Boston Globe): We are often confronted with images or phrases that are considered to be grossly offensive to a religious group, or a racial group, or an ethnic group. And our standard policy is not to publish those phrases or images that are considered to be offensive.

FOLKENFLIK: And Baron says, thorough and balanced coverage does not require the Globe to reproduce the offending image.

Mr. BARON: We frequently write about offensive phrases and don't necessarily use the full phrase.

FOLKENFLIK: To his way of thinking, this is not a question of free speech. He says the newspaper is exercising its own editorial discretion.

Mr. BARON: It comes up all the time. This is not an exception, this is, in fact, the general rule.

FOLKENFLIK: CBS and NBC did not show the cartoons, neither did CNN. ABC News did broadcast some footage once. ABC spokeswomen Cathy Levine says, quote, "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 said 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.

Mr. JACOB WEISBERG (Editor, Slate.com): I'm glad I don't have to make that same choice. 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 readers.

FOLKENFLIK: Weisberg says Slate gives its readers to the ability to judge for themselves.

Mr. WEISBERG: They want to see want everybody is talking about, and they know if they come to us, they'll be able to find it through us. We're going to have a discussion about it. 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Slate regularly posts controversial editorial cartoons. But Slate didn't include this one on its own site.

Mr. WEISBERG: 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 that I felt pretty iffy about doing.

FOLKENFLIK: Instead, Weisberg explains, Slate gave links to other websites with the 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. Slate is owned by the Washington Post Company. The Post has not printed the cartoons. Slate produces the show DAY TO DAY in collaboration with National Public Radio. Senior news executives at NPR and its website, npr.org, similarly decided against reproducing the cartoons.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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