Those Cartoons: To Publish Is One Issue. To Explain Is Another.

Posted by Michael Getler on

Sorry to be picking on the PBS NewsHour again, but the news stories that have emerged in the past several weeks have been especially powerful and they stir up emotions and viewers. The latest one was the murderous assault on Jan. 7 on the Paris offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo—which left 12 people dead at the hands of masked gunmen shouting, according to an amateur video, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.”

As everyone now knows, Hebdo is a small, weekly newspaper that is most well-known for its relentless devotion to extremely provocative cartooning; sacred cows of all sorts but especially religious extremism and, more specifically in recent years and days, Islamic extremism and the Prophet Muhammed. Its office was fire-bombed in 2011 after a lampooning of Muhammad and Islamic, or Sharia, law.

The publication of cartoons about Muhammad in western periodicals has, for several years now, set off violence and controversy. And it also raises critical questions about the role of the press, freedom of expression, and self-censorship; whether other news organizations should, or should not, reproduce offending material published elsewhere. In late 2005, cartoons about Muhammad began appearing in a Danish newspaper. Soon after, they were cited as the cause of widespread rioting in several countries that reportedly accounted for some 200 deaths. I wrote about this at the time, and how the then nightly “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” covered it.

A Tough Call for News Organizations

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attack, news organizations were once again wrestling with whether to republish highly controversial cartoons.

There are two very legitimate sides to this issue. This is an over-simplification, but one is to publish because the content of the cartoons is a critical part of the news surrounding the horrific attacks in Paris and readers and viewers are entitled to see them to form their own judgments. It is also to show solidarity with those on the leading edge of free expression, no matter how offensive it may be to some, and to show that the press will not be intimidated by such attacks. The other is to not publish the cartoons because the visual effect is truly offensive to large numbers of Muslims and descends into, or comes close to, outright bigotry and fans racial hatred. It is better, in this argument, to describe the drawings in stories. And, given the history of these attacks, it may also endanger your staff just to prove a point, as one editor put it.

These drawings, perhaps familiar to Europeans who have been through this kind of mayhem before, are way beyond what you would see in well-known American publications.

As The Washington Post reported, in the wake of the attacks, only a few U.S. news organizations such as the online-only BuzzFeed and Huffington Post operations, reprinted some of the cartoons with the Huffington Post headline stating: “These are the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons That Terrorists Thought Were Worth Killing Over.” Some European newspapers also reprinted the cartoons.

But major U.S. news organizations—among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, CNN, all the major broadcast and cable networks, NPR and PBS—decided not to republish them. And many of them—including the Times, Post, AP, CNN, NPR—provided substantive explanations from top editors as to why they made those decisions, sometimes in the face of strong criticism from the public and from press critics. The PBS NewsHour, in its Jan. 8 broadcast, said only, “The cartoons in the magazine are highly controversial and provocative. Many news organizations, including the PBS NewsHour, have decided not to show these images.”

In a blog post and in its Saturday Weekend Edition NPR discussed, in depth, its thinking on the issue and “Why You’re Not Seeing Those Charlie Hebdo Cartoons.” The editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, gave an interview to Public Editor Margaret Sullivan explaining in detail the paper’s policy and how it reached the specific decision in the Hebdo case. "We have a standard that is long held and has served us well, " Baquet said. "That there is a line betwee gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult." 

The Times standards editor, Philip Corbet, also talked about it in print. The Associated Press standards editor, Tom Kent, posted an especially thorough explanation of the wire service’s approach and decision-making. Washington Post Executive Editor, Marty Baron, explained his decision-making to the paper’s media reporter, saying the newspaper avoids material "that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups." Other executives from the AP also discussed it in interviews, as did executives from CNN, NBC and other organizations.

On Jan. 8, after the first emails from viewers started landing in my box, I emailed NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just, asking: “What are the guidelines for the NewsHour when it comes to the question of whether to show the Hebdo drawings? The images were not used on last night’s broadcast, or online, so what was the reasoning behind that and what kind of guidance will determine whether to show the offending cartoons at all? As you know, this is a media-wide question getting attention and I’d be grateful to know NewsHour thinking on this issue.”

She answered that: “We will be discussing this on the air tonight [Jan. 8] in Jeff Brown’s report. We have made the decision not to air or post the Hebdo images, consistent with NewsHour general policy to avoid images that may be deemed offensive by large numbers of people.”

Actually, that message to me, despite its brevity, was more than NewsHour viewers were told on the air. The segment, in which correspondent Jeffrey Brown talked with two well-known American cartoonists, was focused on their work and personal guidelines and only mentioned in passing that the NewsHour has “decided not to show these images.” It was a worthy segment but distant from the key media issue of the day, which was why major American news outlets, including PBS, were not showing their readers and viewers the cause of the atrocities in Paris that had captured world attention and condemnation.

My Take

So what might I have done? These are tough calls for top editors. There are usually internal policy guidelines about material that can be offensive to large numbers of people. But my experience is that final decisions usually also benefit greatly from internal discussions in which several experienced members of a news operation talk through the specific case.

In this case, I think the NewsHour made the right decision with its regular evening broadcast, but missed a number of important opportunities to serve its dedicated viewers. One was a failure to explain in some detail, as many other news outlets had, why it was not showing something on its news broadcast that was a key element of the news, was visual, had grabbed the world’s attention and angered many. There was not even much verbal description of what was in these drawings. Another was not using its website to post at least some of the images and tell its broadcast viewers, along with a warning, that, if there were some who wanted to see this material, they could go there by taking specific actions. And, it also could have made clear that, in today’s digital world, the images were broadly available at various other online locations.

Here Are the Letters

The two cartoonists on tonight's News Hour agreed that the quality they value most as cartoonists and journalists is "honesty." I suppose it was too much to ask the NewsHour to broadcast copies of the cartoons, but it would have been honest of you to explain why. Disappointed in your lack of honesty as well as your lack of courage.

Richard Cook, St. Louis, MO

~ ~ ~

"The NewsHour" on PBS is a major outlet for how I stay informed. With regard to the "NewsHour" deciding to suppress the cartoons—which may have led to the tragedy in Paris—I wish the producers would come out, publicly, and explain the reason for their decision. It is certainly possible to support freedom of speech, while at the same time, disagree with the content and import of the cartoons, in question. However, in the interest of presenting the full dimension of the news story, I believe the program's decision, not to broadcast the cartoons, was wrong.

I have seen two of the cartoons and I, myself, am unclear as to their literary redemption.  Indeed, the depictions may have stepped over the line of a certain degree of acceptability. However, in the case of presenting all features of a critical story—one that, I think, has potential impact for the clash of cultures and civilizations around the world—I believe the "NewsHour" should have, in the final analysis, opted for an unabridged presentation.

Brett Coty, Rockport, MA

~ ~ ~

Folks-I've been following what is now called The Newshour since 1979 (seriously). I'm very disappointed in your censorship in your refusal to carry things like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They are completely newsworthy, very relevant — and I don't know whether you're not carrying them because you're scared of being a target, or whether it's just religious discrimination. (I'm an atheist; and I consider not wanting to offend religionist's sensibilities as a form of religious discrimination). You're better than this. I don't turn to The Newshour each and every night, just to receive the same type of censorship one finds on CNN et al.

Dave Huntsman, Peninsula, Ohio

~ ~ ~

I heard one of your TV presenters say that the NewsHour had made an editorial decision not to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on PBS. This decision is tragically wrong-headed, validates the terrorists and erodes our freedoms. Did you not read the statement from Al Qaeda in Yemen, that their martyrs had "taught us the limits of free expression!" The only meaningful response to the Charlie Hebdo attack is not "Je Suis Charlie," or pens in the air. Rather it is for every newspaper, magazine and television station in the free world to publish all manner of Charlie cartoons (not just ones satirizing Islam) every day for the next month. Anything less is collaboration with evil.

David McBride, Napa Valley, CA

~ ~ ~

Shame on you for not showing Charlie's cartoons. Surprisingly cowardly.

Michael Paine, Seattle, WA

~ ~ ~

I am shocked and angry that you do not have the strength and commitment to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the NewsHour Report tonight. I expect more free press integrity from you. I find it shameful that you don't have the courage to put yourselves on the line for freedom of the press.

Gerd Grace, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

I am disappointed that in your coverage this evening of the tragedy in Paris that you showed only partial pages of the satiric publication whose offices were attacked. By choosing not to show some of the cartoons, no matter how offensive they are, you capitulate to the terrorists who conducted the attack, and who strike at the heart of our freedom of expression. You seem to have no problem in showing gruesome images of war, poverty, etc. but clearly backed off from even partial disclosure of these cartoons, thus giving the terrorists a clear "win."

James Hendrix, Cashiers, NC

New Edition, Old Decision

In the aftermath of those murderous attacks on Hebdo’s offices, on Monday the magazine published its first post-attack edition with a drawing on the cover showing a depiction of what the cartoonist says is Muhammad, with a tear on his cheek, holding a sign that says “Je Suis Charlie” under a headline that says “All Is Forgiven.” More news organizations (not including The New York Times)  made the decision to use it to illustrate the comeback of the magazine, which sold out a three-million copy press run, some 50 times its normal circulation.

The NewsHour also stuck to its position of not showing the cover, which produced another outpouring of email to the ombudsman. Personally, I didn’t find this new drawing particularly powerful, and actually a bit confusing. But I think there was a stronger case for running this than the earlier drawings which were far more inflammatory.

“Cowardly and shameful: your refusal to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoon. CBS had the courage to do it but you surrendered to political correctness,” is the way Ross Baker of Highland Park, N.J., put it. A viewer in Takoma, Wash., called it “cowardly and sanctimonius.” Jay Stonehill of Atlantic Beach, N.Y., said: “This decision sends the message that indeed, the extremists do speak for the Islamic religion, and if they determine that something is ‘unIslamic’ then the world must listen to them.”

Posted on Jan. 14, 2015 at 12:34 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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