Journalistic Integrity and the Danish Cartoons
The Ethics Scoreboard yields to no one in its consistent distain for the lack of integrity and consistently applied ethics standards on the part of news media in the United States. Nonetheless, the decision by the vast majority of newspapers, magazines and televised news programs not to show the controversial Danish cartoons that have provoked worldwide rioting by angry Muslims is shocking. After decades of pious and self-serving pronouncements by journalism’s high priests about “the public’s right to know” and the sanctity of the First Amendment, there is no excusing it, rationalizing it or justifying it.
The decision is cowardly; it is hypocritical and, as measured by the principles that journalist have eagerly espoused when it suited their purposes, unethical.
The absurdly weak argument put forth by editorials in the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post is that it is unnecessary to print the offending drawings, despite their pivotal role in a major news story with far-reaching consequences. Verbal descriptions printed in the papers, the argument goes, give readers all the information they need, so it would be needlessly disrespectful to the sensitivities of the followers of Islam to reproduce drawings that so many of them feel are blasphemous. Suddenly, American journalists are rejecting the wisdom that ” a picture is worth a thousand words,” and done so while reporting an international story about pictures! The obvious truth is that it is impossible to evaluate and understand the controversy over the cartoons without seeing them.
Are the cartoons objectively more offensive than the typical American political cartoon, such as the recent Tom Toles drawing in the Washington Post that used the image of a quadruple amputee soldier as a comic prop? Are they more insensitive than “Boondocks,” Aaron McGruder’s edgy comic strip that recently showed a revived Martin Luther King calling present day African-Americans “niggers”? Is the depiction of the prophet Mohammed more insulting to Muslims than the caricatures of Jesus Christ on “South Park” are to many Christians? How does the portrayal of Islam’s holy prophet compare to Mel Brook’s butter-fingered Moses and his lampooning of the torturing of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition in his film, “The History of the World, Part 1”? Or writer/director Kevin Smith’s portrayal of God as a skeeball obsessed mute in the satire “Dogma”? There is no way to answer these questions without seeing the cartoons themselves. Don’t tell us that we’re supposed to trust a journalist’s assessment of the cartoons. Their handling of this very story starkly illustrates why the judgement of journalists cannot be trusted, or in many instances even respected.
When did this sudden respect for religious sensitivities, or any sensitivities at all, emerge in the journalistic community? Papers eagerly published “Piss Christ,” artist Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, when a controversy arose over its exhibition in art galleries. This suddenly popular “a thousand words are as good as a picture” standard would have applied then as well as now: a crucifix in a jar filled with urine OK, got it!. “No need to show the picture, right? I mean, we don’t want to offend anybody!” Any editor who made such an argument in 1989 would have been chased out of the newsroom. Now that same argument is the industry line.
Why? Journalistic ethics? No, journalistic expediency.
The Times, Post, Journal and USA Today have been joined by virtually all major U.S. dailies and news networks, as well as Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Time, the Associated Press, NBC, CBS, CNN and National Public Radio’s website. The only U.S. news organizations to give the American public the information they supposedly have a “right to know” are the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman, the New York Sun, the Fox cable network and ABC. And in the much larger self-censoring group, only the weekly arts and commentary tabloid the Boston Phoenix has confessed that its editors made the decision
Even in the absence of courage or principle, honesty is still admirable.
The Ethics Scoreboard briefly considered designating the Inquirer, American-Statesman, the New Sun, Fox and ABC as “Ethics Heroes,” but decided that this would be a misapplication of the honor. One does not become a hero just because the others in one’s profession are hypocrites and cowards. Consider: after all the bravado and bold rhetoric that columnists, reporters, broadcast journalists and editors have spouted in the past as they eagerly and self-righteously embarrassed national leaders of both parties, published reports (both true and false) that harmed America’s image abroad, ridiculed elected and appointed officials, enraged religious leaders, denigrated professionals and everyday Americans, aggravated racial divisions and class tensions, angered foreign governments and populations, and offended the sensibilities of parents, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Evangelicals, conservatives, liberals, feminists, gays, seniors, Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers and almost every other group imaginable, America’s news media has now allowed its fear of the fanatic reaction to a few crude cartoons to reveal the true depth of its reverence for freedom of the press. Those who give us the news, we now know, are only courageous as long as there is no real threat to them.
When it was faced with the threat of violence from terrorists and their supporters, our news media retreated to the craven calculation of the Cold War disarmament slogan: “Better Red Than Dead.” The same editorial voices that have been condemning the Bush Administration for compromising American rights in order to combat terrorism are perfectly willing to surrender one of our most cherished rights–the right that allows them to exist!–in fear of terrorism.
In the end, it may be that the most significant impact of the Danish cartoons was not the violence it unleashed or the cultural divide it exposed but how it revealed the pitiful lack of integrity, responsibility, and courage among America’s journalist elite.