Saturday, February 04, 2006

Controversial Cartoons Depicting the Prophet Muhammad Are All Over the Place -- Except In U.S. Newspapers Because They're 'Too Offensive'

Hey, it wouldn't be a normal week in the news business without some controversy.

The latest deals with some cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad that have appeared on the Internet and in some European publications.

Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher, a hard-digging reporter if I ever saw one, tried to wrap it all up with this story:

By Joe Strupp
Published: February 03, 2006 3:50 PM ET

"NEW YORK -- As a collection of controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad circulates online and through some European publications, prompting numerous acts of violence abroad, nearly all U.S. newspapers have chosen not to publish the cartoons.

"Although most American papers have covered the issue, with many running Page One stories, most contend the cartoons are too offensive to run, and can be properly reported through descriptions. While some have linked to the images on the Web, others are considering publishing one or more of them next week. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer has complained that the Associated Press should at least distribute the images and allow members papers to make the call.

"'They wouldn't meet our standards for what we publish in the paper,' said Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, which ran a front-page story on the issue Friday, but has not published the cartoons. 'We have standards about language, religious sensitivity, racial sensitivity and general good taste.'

"Downie, who said the images also had not been placed on the Post website, compared the decision to similar choices not to run offensive photos of dead bodies or offensive language. 'We described them,' he said of such images. 'Just like in the case of covering the hurricanes in New Orleans or terrorist attacks in Iraq. We will describe horrific scenes.'

"At USA Today, deputy foreign editor Jim Michaels offered a similar explanation. 'At this point, I'm not sure there would be a point to it," he said about publishing the cartoons. 'We have described them, but I am not sure running it would advance the story.' Although he acknowledged that the cartoons have news value, he said the offensive nature overshadows that.

"'It has been made clear that it is offensive,' Michaels said when asked if the paper was afraid of sparking violence or other kinds of backlash. 'I don't know if fear is the right word. But we came down on the side that we could serve readers well without a depiction that is offensive.'

"The Los Angeles Times sent this statement to Editor & Publisher: 'Our newsroom and op-ed page editors, independently of each other, determined that the caricatures could be deemed offensive to some readers and the there were effective ways to cover the controversy without running the images themselves.'

"The cartoons, which include one of the Muslim prophet wearing a turban fashioned into a bomb, have been reprinted in papers in Norway, France, Germany and Jordan after first running in a Danish paper last September. The drawings were published again recently after some Muslims decried them as insulting to their prophet, AP reported, adding that Dutch-language newspapers in Belgium and two Italian 'right-wing' papers reprinted the drawings Friday.

"Islamic law, according to most clerics' interpretations of the Quran, forbids depictions of Muhammad and other major religious figures -- even positive images.

"Tens of thousands of angry Muslims marched through Palestinian cities, burning the Danish flag and calling for vengeance Friday against European countries where the caricatures were published. In Washington, the State Department criticized the drawings, calling them "offensive to the beliefs of Muslims.'

"Still, most American newspapers are not publishing the cartoons, sticking mostly to the view that they constitute offensive images....."

Joe Strupp ( is a senior editor at E&P.


Congratulations to the Des Moines Register for beating out those papers in Dubuque, Marshalltown, Council Bluffs and all of those other Iowa communities for the Iowa Newspaper Association's Newspaper of the Year award.

That proves what I've been saying all along -- the the Register got screwed when it didn't win last year's award.

The new recognition should make Paul Anger and Rick Tapscott happy. Maybe it won't get 'em a pay raise, though, because they've already bailed out of our state. Anger was the Register's editor during part of 2005, and now is in Detroit. Tapscott was the managing editor here, and now is somewhere in Delaware.

The Register didn't win some of the other important stuff at the awards banquet -- categories like best editorial pages [won by the Mason City Globe-Gazette]; best front page [Cedar Rapids Gazette]; best sports pages [Cedar Rapids Gazette]; best feature page [Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier]; business coverage [Iowa City Press-Citizen]; master columnist [Mike Deupree, Cedar Rapids Gazette]; sports columnist [Don Doxsie, Quad-City Times] -- but, hell, you can't win 'em all.

By the way, I hope Deupree and Doxsie get raises. They're good guys.


I didn't want to get into all of this, but I owe it to my readers.

You may recall that a guy named "Norton from Newton" wrote to me the other day, and I printed his e-mail. I somehow don't think the guy's real name was "Norton from Newton," but anyone who wants to go through life with that handle is welcome to it, even if the only time he stops in Newton is when he has to take a leak while driving home on I-80.

Anyway, Norton wrote about Iowa residents David Skorton and Mike Gartner. Actually, Skorton is, or soon will be, a former Iowa resident. He has quit as president at the University of Iowa, and will be taking the same sort of job at Cornell University.

"Norton from Newton's" e-mail said Gartner "was behind the whole deal" of Skorton quitting at Iowa.

"The only positive out of this horrible news is that at least Gartner didn't have to fake any gas tank explosions this time," wrote "Norton from Newton."

A couple of people have asked me what the hell that's all about. The gas tank explosions, I mean.

I try to forget negative stuff like that, but I owe it to my readers to get them updated on things.

After all, some of them were in short pants and still riding tricycles when that gas tank explosion deal was rocking the TV business.

To help in my explanation is someone named Byron York, who wrote an essay for National Review Online. I've got more important things going on in my life than worrying about how somebody from cityview got his tit in a wringer by making a dumb decision a number of years ago. So thanks to York for explaining things in this piece:

By Byron York

"Do you remember Michael Gartner? Probably not.

"Gartner used to be president of NBC News, until the scandal at Dateline NBC blew him out of his job. That scandal began, you may remember, in November 1992, when Dateline aired a segment on General Motors trucks that allegedly had a dangerous tendency to catch fire in side collisions.

"True to TV-news-magazine form, Dateline wanted some dramatic video to illustrate the problem. So producers set up a test in which a car would slam into the side of one of the trucks, leading —- hopefully —- to a spectacular, caught-on-tape explosion.

"But what if the truck didn't blow up? Would the Dateline team have to get another one and try again? That could get expensive.

"So to ensure a positive result, the Dateline producers placed small incendiary devices in the truck. And sure enough, it blew up very nicely.

"The people at General Motors thought there was something suspicious about the report. A few months later, having done an extraordinarily detailed study of the matter, they filed a defamation suit against NBC.

"Michael Gartner stood firm. While he admitted that NBC had used what he called 'sparking devices' in the demonstration, he claimed that GM's accusation was a distraction from the real story. 'GM sought to divert attention from the central issue,' Gartner said, 'namely that there appear to be fundamental problems with the safety of its trucks.'

"'We remain convinced that, taken in its entirety and in its detail, the segment that was broadcast on 'Dateline NBC' was fair and accurate.'

"The short version of that is that Gartner was arguing that the Dateline demonstration was fake but true. But that tough stance didn't last long.

"GM filed its lawsuit on Monday, February 8, 1993. Gartner's response came the same day. By the next night, Tuesday, NBC was in full mea culpa mode. The company announced it had settled the lawsuit with GM —- in a single day! —- and Dateline co-host Jane Pauley told viewers that the rigged demonstration was 'a bad idea from start to finish.'

"The program's other host, Stone Phillips, said, 'We deeply regret that we included the inappropriate demonstration in our 'Dateline' report. We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors.'

"Off camera, Gartner was backing up at 100 miles an hour. 'We made a mistake,' he said in a memo to the staff. 'Now we need to find out what went awry.' A couple of days later, Gartner announced that NBC had hired two outside lawyers to investigate the incident.

"'We must move on,' he said.

"But top NBC executives were the ones moving on. They didn't even wait until the completion of the outside investigation to make a decision about Gartner's future. On March 2, less than a month after NBC's apology, he was forced out.

"A little more than two weeks later, NBC fired three more people —- the Dateline executive producer, senior producer, and segment producer responsible for the GM report.

"On March 22, NBC made public the results of its independent investigation. It was strongly critical of virtually every decision made in the GM story. And the last person involved with the segment, the on-air reporter, was booted from the network, sent to NBC's local station in Miami.

"In six weeks —- between February 8 and March 22 —- NBC took care of its Dateline problem. No, the network did not fully recover in that period of time. But it set its affairs in order and laid the groundwork for its eventual recovery....."

[Byron York worked for NBC's owned-and-operated station in Washington at the time of the Dateline scandal. A version of this first appeared in The Hill].