The chain of questions begins several months ago, after a massacre by ISIS-inspired Islamist jihadists targeted the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Many news organizations chose not to run the magazine’s provocative cartoons or even its follow-up cover of Mohammed, including the New York Times, which demurred supposedly on the standards of offense to “religious sensibilities.” The issue came up again this week when the Times ran a story about a portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made entirely out of condoms. The report that accompanied it focused specifically on the offense it caused Catholics in the area, but the Times decided to run the image of it anyway.
Mediaite’s Alex Griswold accused the Times of hypocrisy and cowardice in its distinctions:
Make no mistake, the portrait was “deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities,” at least to the same extent that Charlie Hebdo “intended to offend.” Likewise, the Times could have just as easily described the portrait without showing it, and the story wouldn’t have suffered an iota. There’s simply no way to reconcile the publication of the Pope portrait with the Times statement back in January.
As I’ve written in the past, The New York Times‘ brave anti-blasphemy stance is essentially a farce. Despite a blistering op-ed back in May attacking Pamela Geller for “inflicting deliberate anguish” on Muslims, the Times gave glowing reviews to Piss Christ (which they showed), to images of the Virgin Mary made of elephant dung (which they also showed), to The Book of Mormon, to The Death of Klinghoffer, and to basically any provocative anti-religious speech that didn’t target one specific religion.
What I wish we could really get from the Times is honesty. I understand on some level that a newspaper with hundreds of employees– many embedded in the Middle East– doesn’t want to publish images of Muhammad. …
But instead of being forward with their readers, the Times sanctimoniously acted like they were taking the high road. “Oh, we’re not scared of terrorists,” they tutted. “We’re just so above such coarse and rude depictions, not like those other outlets.” But in reality, coarse and rude depictions are perfectly okay at the Times when directed at religions that– lets face it– aren’t all that popular at Manhattan cocktail parties.
That caught the attention of Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, whose “Perfectly Reasonable Questions” column relayed what she considered a perfectly reasonable answer this morning from “standards editor” Philip Corbett:
There’s no simple, unwavering formula we can apply in situations like this. We really don’t want to gratuitously offend anyone’s deeply held beliefs. That said, it’s probably impossible to avoid ever offending anyone. We have to make these judgments all the time. Reasonable people might disagree about any one of them.
I don’t think these situations — the Milwaukee artwork and the various Muhammad caricatures — are really equivalent. For one thing, many people might disagree, but museum officials clearly consider this Johnson piece to be a significant artwork. Also, there’s no indication that the primary intent of the portrait is to offend or blaspheme (the artist and the museum both say that it is not intended to offend people but to raise a social question about the fight against AIDS). And finally, the very different reactions bear this out. Hundreds of thousands of people protested worldwide, for instance, after the Danish cartoons were published some years ago. While some people might genuinely dislike this Milwaukee work, there doesn’t seem to be any comparable level of outrage.
What’s wrong with this answer? Corbett is in effect validating the heckler’s veto. He’s saying that they won’t run cartoons and art that serve as criticism for religious leaders in Islam because more people protest it around the world than running the same kind of critical art about religious figures for other religions, in this case Catholicism. Even that’s a fairly weak nod to the fact that it’s not the protests, but the violence that accompanies it that sets Islam apart for special handling at the Times. Corbett thus confirmed exactly what Griswold concluded about the Times’ policy — that it’s both hypocritical and cowardly.
Sullivan extended her thoughts on this point on Twitter, suggesting that the comparison between Mohammed and a pope was unfair:
— Margaret Sullivan (@Sulliview) July 1, 2015
Why not? Both were leaders of major religions, so at least on that basis they seem to be comparable enough for equal treatment by the Times. But if that doesn’t do it given Mohammed’s status as a prophet for Muslims, what about offense art directed at, oh, the Virgin Mary? Would the Times run an image of Mary composed of elephant dung and pornographic images under its stated policy from January — “Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities”?
Why, of course they would. And they did so on May 29, 2015, about five weeks ago, months after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and months after their sanctimonious demurral. The Times even reported on how outraged and offended Christians became when this first got displayed with public funds, right next to a very clear representation of the artwork:
The Australian collector David Walsh is selling Chris Ofili’s 1996 painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which caused a furor when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in October 1999 as part of Charles Saatchi’s touring “Sensation” exhibition of works by Young British Artists (YBAs).
The eight-foot-high depiction of a black Virgin Mary, encrusted with a lump of elephant dung and collaged bottoms from pornographic magazines, outraged religious leaders and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who described Mr. Ofili’s painting and other works in the show as “sick stuff.” Mr. Giuliani’s attempts to close the exhibition by withholding public funds were rejected by a federal judge. The painting was subsequently acquired by Mr. Walsh, an entrepreneur who developed systems for winning games of chance. His subterranean Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania quirkily combines near-the-knuckle works by Hans Bellmer and Wim Delvoye with Egyptian mummies and Greek antiquities.
A screenshot of the page can be found here, in case the NYT memory-holes it. Maybe Margaret Sullivan can use it to ask Corbett and managing editor Dean Baquet to come up with another fairy tale about how principled their distinction about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are. The bottom line: the New York Times has no problem insulting and offending Christians because Christians don’t commit violence when offended. Maybe that’s worth considering a compliment to Christians, but it’s anything but complimentary for the Times and its editors.
Addendum: Just to complete my thoughts on the issue, the consistent editorial decision would be to run all of these images or none of them. The proper editorial decision would be to run them all, especially those that produce more noteworthy responses. The New York Times’ Corbett is arguing that the more noteworthy the response, the less the images should be shown. Under that rubric, we’d publish less and less information about wars than the issues and conflicts that drive them, and less about elections than about the launches of candidacies, and so on.