Danish drawings of prophet trigger ethics debate

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Twelve Danish editorial cartoons are challenging American journalism ethics: Should caricatures of Islam’s prophet Muhammad be published in the name of press freedom or be censored to appease offended Muslims?

The pen and ink drawings have appeared in a dozen European newspapers, sparking riots and boycotts among Muslim populations both locally and in the Middle East.

The cartoons were politicized in the U.S. on Tuesday after former President Bill Clinton denounced them as appalling and outrageous.

Two were published by the New York Daily Sun yesterday. Online, one drawing appeared on the Drudge Report; all 12 ran at the Web sites of Front Page (www.frontpagemag.com) and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin (www.michellemalkin.com).

Mrs. Malkin challenged American editors to run the “forbidden” cartoons with her latest weekly column.

“This is a moment of global, historic importance,” Mrs. Malkin said yesterday. “Anybody paying attention to the Islamic sensitivity police knows there is enormous pressure to self-censor. I am extremely disappointed in the cowardice among mainstream media outlets for declining to publish the cartoons, as if they were pornography. Free speech preachers should walk the walk — allowing the American public to see for themselves what the controversy is all about.”

Ahmed Younis, of the District- and California-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said of the cartoons, “This type of hate-mongering only fuels the propaganda of the terrorists,” while further “disenfranchising” Muslim moderates. Islam forbids any depiction of Muhammad.

James Zogby, president of the District-based Arab-American Institute, categorized European press coverage of the cartoons as irresponsible and provocative.

“The way it’s being handled is not as a freedom of the press issue,” said Mr. Zogby, who is a Christian.

“Should we be provoking people in a period such as the one we are in? Isn’t this a time when discretion should be the better part of valor? Shouldn’t we have, not only a free press, but a smart press?” he asked.

Some pundits questioned Muslim religious sensitivities this week, pointing out that Christians do not become violent over the numerous blasphemous depictions in Western cultures — perhaps most notoriously, depictions of a crucifix submerged in urine or a painting of the Virgin Mary daubed with feces, which both appeared in U.S. museums.

“The American press tradition has been to give editorial cartoonists full support to express themselves, even if it’s pretty outrageous,” said Gregg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher magazine.

He cited a cartoon showing an armless and legless soldier carried by The Washington Post, which so provoked the Pentagon that all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a letter of protest, which The Post printed yesterday.

“I am not quite sure how this tradition applies to an offensive foreign cartoon, however. It is hard to judge, hard to predict the outcome. At this point, it’s more of a news story about local reactions. But these things tend to have a life of their own,” Mr. Mitchell added.

“An editorial cartoon should push boundaries and make people think. An editor who spikes a cartoon must have some clear grounds to do so. If it’s going to incite a real riot — and not just a riot on the Internet — that would constitute strong criteria not to run it,” observed Kelly McBride, a media ethics analyst at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based press watchdog.

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