Nice try, but alas, I must call B.S.
Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said in an e-mail message that the newspaper had “no policy against publishing things that might offend someone — lots of people are offended by lots of things — but we try to refrain from giving widespread offense unless there is some offsetting journalistic purpose.”
“A picture of a burning book contributes nothing substantial to a story about book-burning, so the offense seems entirely gratuitous,” Mr. Keller continued. “The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”
Well, for starters, the “offsetting journalistic purpose” here would be visually illustrating the key moment of the event you’re reporting on, no? It’s one thing to not print a photo if it contains something offensive that’s unrelated to the story, like an idiot giving the finger while standing behind a politician who’s speaking to reporters, but when your whole purpose for being there is to cover something offensive happening, I dare say a photo of it happening qualifies as “newsy.”
But beyond that, the Times’s non-coverage of the Mohammed cartoons a few years ago proves how bogus Keller’s argument is. Not only did they refuse to print them, thus making it impossible for readers to see what the global fuss was about without consulting an outside source, but — infamously — they chose to illustrate a story inspired by the cartoon uproar about offensive imagery with a photo of … the Virgin Mary painted in elephant dung. The painting was mentioned in the piece, but only tangentially; the focus was, of course, the cartoons and the insane reaction to them. Faced with the choice between no illustration, a highly newsworthy illustration that offended Muslims, and a glancingly related illustration that offended Christians, they went with the last one notwithstanding the fact that, in context, it had little “journalistic purpose.” Why? Because, of course, Keller doesn’t really care about gratuitous offense; he cares about people getting bombed when Muslim fundies get mad. I can sympathize to some extent with the media trying to save lives by not giving lunatics a pretext to be lunatics, but if you’re going to do that, at least have the dignity to acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing. Appease if you must, but don’t be dishonest about it.
Follow the link up top and read the entire Times piece, as it provides a timeline of how the media helped create the Frankenstein monster they’re now desperately trying to kill. It’s not a complete narrative — for that, read this Salon piece too about how hard Arab media has worked over the past few months to demagogue Jones’s stunt — but it’s useful in tracking how early some U.S. media outlets picked this up as a way of pushing their Islamophobia narrative. As far as I can tell, Jones’s first appearance on a major network came all the way back on July 29 when he turned up on — ta da — Rick Sanchez’s show, which doubtless caught the attention of some media players in the Middle East. (Think Progress flagged the clip the next day under the heading “Radical Right-Wing Agenda.”) It was Petraeus’s comment over the weekend about how much traction the story’s already gotten in Afghanistan that then sent the media into overdrive this week, turning the story into the global clusterfark it’s now become. And now that it is one, and everyone from Obama to the Vatican is begging Jones to stand down, the media’s trying to atone for hyping this crank by either blacking out coverage of what he’s up to or, as you’re about to see, dropping any pretense of objectivity and condemning the guy themselves. Enjoy as Mika Brzezinski disgraces herself by accusing Jones of potentially having “blood on his hands” — wrong, wrong, wrong — before ex-Newsweek editor Jon Meacham delivers a little New Testament pep talk and then they cut away, without Jones ever uttering a word. They’ve gone from moronic hyperventilation to obnoxious self-congratulation in the span of about 24 hours. Amazing.