More Thoughts From Minneapolis Red Sox and Frank the Tank on the Daily Illini

The controversy at the Daily Illini and how the press has handled the publication or non-publication of the Danish cartoons has certainly caused a firestorm where reasonable people can disagree.

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune shares my view of the situation, where he called it a “dark day for journalism in Champaign.”  He also levied some heavy criticism last week at his own newspaper for not publishing the cartoons in question.

On the other side of the aisle on this issue is Don Wycliff, the public editor of the Tribune (i.e. the guy who responds to people who complain to the paper), who defended the paper’s decision last week as a sign of respect of the Muslim faith and expanded on the subject in a column today by explaining how publishing offensive photos of Abu Ghraib is different than the publication of the Danish cartoons.

I wanted to get the opinion of my best friend from high school – hereinafter referred to as “Minneapolis Red Sox” and who happens to have a great new blog called “Siberia, Minnesota” – since he is a former journalist that used to be the editor of his college newspaper and generally shuns political correctness (and I seriously mean that as a high compliment).  His views on the media’s general refusal to publish the Danish cartoons surprised me.  We ended up having a heated, fascinating, and honest discussion by email yesterday, which is transcribed verbatim below:

Frank the Tank: I don’t know if you’ve seen my posts over the last couple of days, but the flap over the Daily Illini publishing those Danish cartoons is really pissing me off. As a former journalist, I’m interested to know what you think.

Minneapolis Red Sox: I think they suck, so they weren’t worth the space in the first place. I also think that if people are that interested they can look them up online. Screw sensitivity, I want to keep bricks out of my window at the office.

Actually, the online idea has merit. You link to it (which is a smart marketing move anyways) and that way you can lock them down a bit – i.e. don’t click if you really don’t want to see them. Might keep the bricks away, too.  Let me ask you this: Aside from the shock value at this point, what does publishing the cartoons get you? The people who want to see them saw them on day 2 or 3 of the Danish fiasco. By printing now, really what do you gain other than a little sensationalist sizzle?

Frank the Tank: Isn’t that what the danger is, though?  Yes, the cartoons did suck. However, the press didn’t publish the cartoons because they thought they  sucked – papers publish pictures and stories that are offensive to particular religions, races, and other groups all of the time.  Instead, they didn’t publish the cartoons because they were afraid of the backlash,  which is a lot more troublesome.  If the members of the press want to pass themselves off as the enlightened beacon of freedom, then they can’t cower and not publish cartoons because they’re scared of a negative reaction. Honestly, I’m unbelievably disappointed in how the American media has handled this.

Plus, I don’t think it’s shock value. It’s one of the most important stories so far this year and the cartoons are the entire basis of that story. If I hear are that a bunch of people are getting killed over some cartoons, I’d think that the only way I could ever come close to understanding why that’s happening is to see the cartoons myself.

What bothers me is that the press loves to use the “freedom of speech” card and stating that is has an obligation to the public to report the truth, whether good or bad, yet they decided not to run the cartoons because they were afraid of a backlash in this particular instance. Would these papers have published these pictures if they had replaced the image of Muhammad with Jesus, a rabbi, or the Dalai Lama? I’m almost positive that the answer would be yes. That means that the press wasn’t worried about being perceived as intolerant toward the Muslim faith, but rather how they thought people of the Muslim faith would react. Isn’t that an even worse stereotype in assuming one religious group is going to act differently than other religious groups?

Minneapolis Red Sox: Then be angry that they didn’t weigh in when the whole thing started in Denmark – just saying that a week after the fact it doesn’t pay to print them. And while they print things that are offensive they are at least topical. A week after the fact, it makes no sense to publish the cartoons. And once the big papers passed, none of the second or third tiers would touch it because then they’d catch hell for being sensationalists.

Frank the Tank: The riots are still going on and 3 more people got killed in them yesterday- I think it’s still topical.  Just because the papers didn’t fulfill their obligations from the beginning doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t correct that mistake.  Of course, they’re not going to do it after publishing a bunch of gobbley-gook editorials about how sensitive they want to be toward people’s religious beliefs and seeing that a couple of college paper editors got raked over the coals for actually standing up for journalistic integrity.

Look, the New York Times defied a Supreme Court order a few months ago regarding Valerie Plame documents which put one of its own reporters in jail.  Yet, that paper won’t print some cartoons that one of its peers from Denmark published where the fallout is going to cause a huge chilling effect on the press internationally?  Is any paper going to be willing to stand up the leaders of a religious faith after this, even when it is necessary? Would you want the Tribune to stop reporting on abuses in the Catholic Church and criticizing Cardinal George because they’re scared of how the city’s large Catholic population is reacting?  That’s unacceptable to me.

Minneapolis Red Sox: You’re confusing religion with the offensive content portion here. You must be forgetting how many TV stations will air alternate content (especially in the Midwest) when controversial episodes are shown on television – i.e. reruns of 7th Heaven when there’s a big lesbian kiss on in prime time – and people get all up in arms and say that Jesus is crying and then everyone gets over it. To this day, you cannot say God damn it on television. In a day and age where ‘douchebag’ is used on national television and God, damn and it are all passible as long as they aren’t used in succession, you’re concerned about newspapers that choose not to show crappy, week-old cartoons that were designed to elicit the same response they received.

You putting too much behind why papers should show these cartoons and not enough to the fact that no one is stopping them. That’s part of the First Amendment, too. Free speech also carries the option (and sometimes responsibility) of no speech and while you get worked into a lather about why these papers aren’t adding fuel to the fire, you’re missing the fact that the White House can’t tell the Washington Post to print them to drum up some Arab furor to help them out in the polls on Iraq.

You are also forgetting that every day hundreds, literally hundreds of photos are left in darkrooms. Burnt corpses, mangled bodies from car and other types of accidents, and good ole heat and cold are left out of the papers because it’d be in poor taste and serves no real purpose. If people really want to see a dead body/these cartoons they will have no trouble finding pictures of a dead body/copies of these cartoons. Every afternoon, editors make suggestions, amendments and out and out cuts from stories and from editorials in the interest of the paper as a whole while trying to maintain a balance and work out the most truthful issue they can.

You want to know why there are no cartoons? Because it’s not in any US paper’s best interest right now. Once the big ones took the duck, everyone else was in the clear. Now anyone who does is being painted as a sensationalist – I hate what they did to the Daily Illini editors, but I’d all but guarantee you they weren’t acting on behalf of the First Amendment, they were looking to cause a stir. The suspensions that followed are probably more because they broke rank to do so.

It’s not like they were sitting on the Pentagon Papers here, dude – they were re-printing week old comics that are readily available on-line. It’s not a First Amendment fight at the DI anymore, it’s a spanking for running against policy.

Frank the Tank: Absolutely, it’s not a First Amendment issue – that only deals with government restrictions on speech, which isn’t the issue here.  Each media organization has the right to print or not print what they want.  Sure, the networks get scared when dealing with the loud complainers in society (look at all of the crap that happened after the Janet Jackson fiasco).  I know full well that media companies are businesses.

But there’s also a difference between the entertainment division of a company and the news division.  I simply believe that the cartoons were an integral part of the story (if not the most important part of the story) and the major papers in this country gave reasons for not printing them that seemed cowardly considering what they’ve been willing to print before.  The fact that one can find any of these cartoons online doesn’t excuse this behavior and the fact that none of the large organizations chose to print them so the smaller guys didn’t print them is an even worse excuse – no wonder why people hate the media as much as lawyers and politicians.

Are papers in the business of printing pictures of dead bodies?  No.  Are papers in the business of offending large groups of people?  Of course not.  But I do believe that papers are in the business of presenting accurate and comprehensive coverage of the news, and while it might not be necessary to accompany a story that someone is dead with a picture of that person’s dead body, I don’t believe that any American or Westerner could possibly understand what’s going on in the Middle East without seeing those cartoons.  Without seeing those cartoons, all the average person is going to think is that all of those people in the Middle East are crazy and willing to kill people over stupid crap like this.  This is an instance where no amount of description with words is going to come close to accurately depicting why people were so outraged.

The press was scared to present the full story because they were afraid of the reaction of a particular religious group.  I fully believe that they would not have done the same thing if it were any other religious group.  That’s the ultimate sign of being intimidated from presenting the facts.  The press just willingly succumbed to chilling effect that they have always stated that it wanted to avoid.  Think of it now – this is going to be used by every Christian group from now until the end of time whenever there’s a negative depiction of that religion (“It was okay to protect Muslims, but not us?”).  That’s an awful precedent.

Minneapolis Red Sox: From CNN today:

I think that because these are illustrated images and not photos, their publication isn’t as important. Let me take this on two-fold. (1) I think the major papers ducked this for political, keep their advertisers reasons, but by doing so backed into a situation I’m fine with and (2) It’s not protecting Muslims, it’s being afraid of them.

1) I can see printing photos of prisoner abuse, monks on fire in Vietnam and little Vietnamese girls who have been napalmed. I can also see why papers in Tulsa and other have pulled The Boondocks, Doonsbury, Outland, etc. at times with things they’d deemed offensive to their readers. In doing so, they keep advertising dollars and maintain the status quo. This is where the liberal media arguement usually sputters out. For as liberal as many reporters and editors are, the people making the decisions are largely conservative and make safer decisions. As much as someone might want to put any of those cartoons in there someone always has a better idea of why thye shouldn’t. That’s just life.

Now, I think illustration vs. photo is a distinction here. It’s hard to decribe a photo in any detail. For most Americans, we need to be told why it’s offensive anyways. Plus, there are varying degrees of outrage here, based on all sorts of things. I wouldn’t know by looking at one of those what was offensive, etc., so seeing the actualy cartoon doesn’t help much.

The story is not the cartoon, the story is what the cartoon represents. The story is not the cartoon, the story is what the cartoon represents. The story is not the cartoon, the story is what the cartoon represents.

I don’t feel offended, but I can understand just as much by being told Muhammad is portrayed like so, as I can from seeing Muhammad being portrayed like so. In the meantime if it doesn’t ignite a furor in Cincinnati, even better. Cost/benefit analysis.

2) America is scared by brown people. They don’t care if they are offended – only if they break shit because they are offended.