Months after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran 12 mostly unflattering cartoons that depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad on Sept. 30, 2005, mobs torched Danish embassies in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and riots in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria led to the deaths of more than 100 people. Most American papers, including The Chronicle, ran stories about the controversy, but chose not to reprint the cartoons. Then-Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal wrote, "We always weigh the value of the journalistic impact against the impact that publication might have as far as insulting or hurting certain groups. In this case, we described the cartoons and felt that was sufficient."
It was a controversy so complicated that it gave many opinion-makers -- including me -- pause.
On the one hand, any newspaper person will defend and must defend the right to run a cartoon that offends people. The day we fail to run opinion lest we offend anyone, we should pack it up.
On the other hand, newspapers regularly exercise self-censorship. If I were an opinion page editor, I would not run a cartoon that gratuitously insults members of any religion. When you offend people's sensibilities -- and I seem to do so every week -- at least you should do so to make a larger point. The Danish cartoons seemed the journalistic equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull.
And bad manners, really. I've seen too many pundits express snide and ignorant opinions about devout Christians, who believe they are the one group whom the media can freely and unfairly stereotype.
With that attitude, I agreed to meet with Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who ran the cartoons, after he spoke at Stanford University last week.
I emerged from that meeting righteous in the belief that we in the media ought to be a little less concerned with Rose's manners and far more concerned about those who seek to intimidate and silence those who express opinions they don't like.
This February, Danish authorities arrested three men for plotting to behead cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew a cartoon depicting Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban. In solidarity, two years after the 2006 riots, 17 Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoon.
Rose noted that the plot to kill the cartoonist proved the cartoonist's point: "They are basically saying, 'If you say we are violent, we are going to kill you.'"
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