Back in college I edited a stoopid underground magazine. Twice we published cartoons featuring Jesus — once in a fake ad for Jesus on Ice and once in a fake ad for the Cruciphone, a telephone shaped like Christ on the cross. (Sophomoric? Hey, we were sophomores.) Now obviously they weren't anti-Christian cartoons, they were jokes about religion and consumerism and the tension between the sacred and the profane. But could they have offended Christians? Almost certainly. There was no big conservative Christian contigency at Oberlin back then, but had there been, we probably would have gotten the same outraged response we got when we made jokes that offended every other cultural or ethnic group on campus. (Good times, good times.)
So clearly I'm not of the school that avoiding offense should be one's primary concern when publishing a newspaper. That said, I think reasonable people can disagree over whether those crazy Danes should have published the notorious Muhammad cartoons, just because they had the right to.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no valid argument for American media outlets not printing the cartoons now as part of their coverage of the ensuing riots. For several reasons, this cowardly abdication of journalism is not, as the Times claims, "a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words."
First, even if the original publication was arguably gratuitous, the republication in the context of news coverage would be highly germane. Knowing exactly what got people so worked up is essential information. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the Times ran photos of Piss Christ and Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin during those controversies; I'm absolutely sure that the paper has (rightly) reprinted antisemitic cartoons that have appeared in Islamic publications in the context of news stories.
Second, the cartoons are not so easily described — not that the Times has made any attempt to try. In 10 articles on the subject, the Times has described, sort of, exactly three of the 12 cartoons, and emphasized, repeatedly, exactly one. Dispensing first with the two cartoons that were mentioned only once, the paper noted that not all of the cartoons were inherently offensive: "One depicted a Danish anti-immigration politician in a police lineup, and another lampooned [Danish editor] Mr. Rose as an agent provocateur." This doesn't even include several others that depict Muhammad neutrally, a religious taboo, but not a mockery of Islam. Despite that, most of the Times' other reports have lumped all 12 cartoons together as "satirizing Muhammad." [Update: Oops. Missed a few stories. Here's one that describes three more toons, bringing the total to six out of 12.]
The one cartoon that has gotten all the attention is typically described as a picture of Muhammad "wearing a turban shaped like a bomb." But even that is far less helpful than seeing the cartoon would be. As Choire Sicha notes in his passionate essay, that description only raises questions: "Does the image... mean that all Muslims are terrorists? Is it a commentary on the tragedy that Muhammad’s religion has given rise to Wahhabism? Or is it a reference to a racist Western conflation of Arabs and terrorists?" (Admittedly, he also notes that it's hard to tell from the cartoon itself, but, hey, that's information too.)
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