In a week when 12 people died in the name of freedom of speech, the New York Times has apparently decided that it isn’t such a big deal. Indeed, in the wake of the massacre of four cartoonists and eight members of the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, the Times‘ Executive Editor Dean Baquet has decided that what is important is for his newspaper to bend over backwards to avoid offending people who think like the killers.
Baquet justified his decision not to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a statement to Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, which he followed up with a series of emails to Politico. The first email explained:
“We have a standard that is pretty simple. We don’t run things that are designed to gratuitously offend. That’s what the French cartoons were actually designed to do. That was their purpose, and for that publication it is a fine purpose. But it isn’t ours. So I had to decide whether it was so important to the story to show the drawings, important enough to drop the standard. And the answer was they were not.”
The logic here is bizarre. Was the actual purpose of the cartoons to “gratuitously offend”—or was it to preserve the boundaries of free speech against threats of violence from religious ideologues? Or was it to make people laugh? And who cares what the cartoonists had in mind anyway? By last Thursday, the cartoons had become the center of the most important news story in the world, the stated motive for a set of high-profile murders—at which point the purpose of reprinting them had become essentially journalistic.
So what scrambled up Dean Baquet’s brain? In a follow-up email to Politico, he added:
“And obviously don’t expect all to agree. But let’s not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet. I don’t give a damn about the head of ISIS but I do care about that family and it is arrogant to ignore them.”
It’s good to know that Dean Baquet’s moral imagination is apparently so broad-minded and generous that he can spend a good chunk of a busy newsday thinking about the feelings of imaginary Muslims in Brooklyn when actual people are being slaughtered in Paris. But why is he only thinking of them? Before Banquet even made his statement, Gawker had dug up plenty of examples of the paper publishing images “designed to gratuitously offend” before, without any apparent fears of offending its readers or seeming “arrogant”—including several ruthlessly racist and anti-Semitic cartoons.
Now, maybe the Times has been wrong all these years, and Baquet is doing the right thing now by introducing a new New York Times that shows its deep humility by censoring key parts of global news stories to protect his imaginary friends. Except it appears that the Times’ new religious sensitivity policy is limited to one group, and that the policy is quite broad. In the middle of an otherwise innocuous Metro section article on Friday about a statue of Muhammad that used to stand outside a New York courthouse, the following note appeared: “The New York Times has chosen not to publish photographs of the statue with this article.”
It’s weird to think that Dean Baquet’s personal interpretation of the Quran has become part of the New York Times’ stylebook—especially when there appears to be nothing in it that explicitly forbids depicting the prophet. But anyway. Unlike Baquet, we have no aspiration to be Quranic scholars. We are journalists, and as observers of the world what we believe is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were murdered because they exercised their right to free speech, and that our freedom to exercise that right is the foundation of any liberal democratic society. That their deaths led to the abrogation of responsibility to this cause by the most important newspaper in the world adds insult to tragedy. You can see the cartoonists as heroes, or as unfortunate victims, or as something in-between. What’s clear is that they are turning over in their graves.