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Muhammed Cartoons: To Publish or Not?



The debate now raging in media circles is simple: Do you publish cartoons which have enraged Muslims enough that embassies have been destroyed and people have been killed? Or do you avoid presenting them, either to prevent futher violence or because the material violates your standards of presentation?

The issue has emerged in stark detail in recent days, as news organizations struggle to cover rioting and protests worldwide by Muslims angered over Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammed.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fox News have published the cartoons, one of which showed Muhammed with a bomb in his turban. The New York Times and USA today among others have declined to publish the cartoons and National Public Radio wouldn't even provide an online link to other Web sites which feature the cartoons. Four staffers at the New York Press resigned when top management insisted they pull images of the cartoons from an issue devoted to them.

My surprising conclusion about all this: Both decisions are right.

Given the severity of the outrage, I don't blame some news organizations for seeking to publish the cartoons, particularly if they act to blur sections which might violate their standards of content. A journalist's prime instinct is to deal in truth, and what could be more truthful than the images which started everything?

And I don't blame some editors for concluding that they would never normally publish such material, so the substance of the cartoons can be conveyed in ways that don't involve violating their editorial standards.

I think it is easy for some pundits to decry the thoughtfulness some editors are bringing to this issue, without acknowledging that a similarly brusque treatment of religious icons they value might push them to a different conclusion. The question each editor must resolve for themselves: are they making their decision to publish or not because of perceived intimidation, or because of the images' journalistic impact?

(The St. Petersburg Times hasn't published the cartoons, but our web site does have a link to a site featuring the cartoons. You can find them here.)

Fortunately, we have enough media making enough independent decisions that those who wish to see these cartoons can find them without much trouble. And editors who feel they can cover the controversy without further stoking the fires of outrage, can exercise their news judgment as well.

Isn't that what a free press is really all about?

Did DATELINE Cross a Thin Line?

CBS Public Eye writer Brian Montopoli has a compelling column posted about Dateline NBC's recent "To Catch a Predator" series.

He writes on CBS' blog devoted to media matters about the ethical questions raised by Dateline's reporting -- which involved the network utilizing volunteers to pose as minors online, engaging men in sexual talk and arranging a meeting at what was supposed to be their home. When the men showed up expecting underage sex, they were greeted by a Dateline reporter and law enforcement.

Montopoli talks about the questionable issue of entrapment -- since some of the volunteers brought up sex first and suggested meeting, aren't they guilty of enticing these men into breaking the law? (Anchor Stone Phillips says no on his Dateline blog) But I was more concerned about something the column briefly touched on: NBC News becoming an arm of law enforcement.

Journalism purists often feel their job is to observe news, not to create it. That line is blurred more often on TV, where an often-unspoken ethic involves placing the reporter at the center of the story, so viewers feel more attached to the report, the reporter and the station.

Usually, that just means TV types wind up doing silly stuff like taking shocks from tasers or getting a shot of tear gas in the face. But in this case, NBC News stood at the center of an operation which trolled online for sexual predators, set-up personal meetings with them and then got them arrested, capturing it all on videotape for a later story.

Montopoli asks whether Dateline is circumventing the natural process of justice by exposing the men's intent to commit a sex crime before they have been charged with one. But I think if NBC had simply observed the process of law enforcement conducting their own stings and arrests, such issues would be moot -- the audience could decide whether the men were guilty of anything.

Of course, you then wouldn't have the dramatic moment where the correspondent alone confronts the men, presenting them with evidence of their past explicit conversations and dashing their feeble excuses while the cameras run.

This is what worries me most about such stories: reporters forgetting that they are not partners with law enforcement, but observers of it (and yes, I'm aware that I admitted helping dump some trash during a house gutting I covered in New Orleans. My own feeble excuse is that the gutting is a small part of my story and doesn't involve an issue contentious as a felony criminal charge).

Sure, Dateline may have helped get some dangerous men off the streets. But they could have done so without making themselves such an intimate part of the story, and their journalism would have been stronger for it.


It's not my best appearance, but I did surface on NPR's News and Notes with Ed Gordon today, discussing Coretta Scott King's funeral and a white teacher thick enough to use the n-word in reference to a black student.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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