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REGARDING MEDIA TIM RUTTEN

Let's be honest about cartoons

February 11, 2006|TIM RUTTEN

THE editor of the Los Angeles Times does not think you need to see any of the cartoons that have triggered deadly riots across the Muslim world.

Earlier this week, I proposed illustrating this column with examples of the caricatures first published last fall in a Danish newspaper. If readers are to form rational opinions about both the ferocity of Islamic reaction and the American news media's response to it, I thought, surely at least a glance at one or two of these mild cartoons is required. I suggested that the cartoons run inside the Calendar section with a notice in this space concerning their location. That way, those who wanted to see them could, while those who might be offended simply could avoid that page.

I fully expected the proposal to be rejected, and it was -- quickly and in writing, though the note also expressed the hope that the column would be as forceful and candid as possible.

This paper has ample company. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today all have declined to run the cartoons because many Muslims find them offensive. The people who run Associated Press, NBC, CBS, CNN and National Public Radio's website agree. So far, the only U.S. news organizations to provide a look at what this homicidal fuss is about are the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman, the Fox cable network and ABC.

Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision "out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy."

There is something wonderfully clarifying about honesty.

Meanwhile, ironies that would be laughable were the situation not so dire have mounted by the day. For one thing, reporting in this paper, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal has made it clear that what's at work here is not the Muslim street's spontaneous revulsion against sacrilege but a calculated campaign of manipulation by European Islamists and self-interested Middle Eastern governments. If the images first published in Jyllands-Posten last September are so inherently offensive that they cannot be viewed in any context, why did Danish Muslims distribute them across an Islamic world that seldom looks at Copenhagen newspapers? As Bernard-Henri Levy wrote this week, we have here a case of "self-inflicted blasphemy."

Then there's the question of why there was no reaction whatsoever when Al Fagr, one of Egypt's largest newspapers, published these cartoons on its front page Oct. 17 -- that's right, four months ago -- during Ramadan. Apparently its editor, Adel Hamouda, isn't as sensitive as his American colleagues.

Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper's art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili's notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren't as touchy as Muhammad's.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with --you guessed it -- one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn't even blush.

If the Danish cartoons are, in fact, being withheld from most American newspaper readers and television viewers out of restraint born of a newfound respect for people's religious sensitivities, a great opportunity to prove the point is coming. A major American studio, Sony, shortly will release a film version of Dan Brown's bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code." It's fair to say that you'd have to go back to the halcyon days of the Nativist publishing operations in the 19th century to find a popular book quite as blatantly and vulgarly anti-Catholic as this one.

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