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Media Reality Check: Freedom to Be Offensive?

To: The Mainstream News Media
From: A reporter-turned-educator who is still a news junkie
Re: Unfunny cartoons

All across the world, in newspapers and blogs, people are talking about offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and the violent reactions they are sparking.

This is prompting some good questions but also some weak ones. Let’s look at a few of them:

1. Do Muslims have no sense of humor?

That question is asked repeatedly in this thread. To which I reply: You are assuming that a) the cartoons are funny and b) Muslims share your sense of humor. If Muslim newspapers ran cartoons of Jesus Christ that were offensive how would Christians like it if, when Christians protest, they were asked why they had no sense of humor. Think back to how angry some Christian groups were over The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma and any other artistic attempt to look at Christianity from a different perspective.

2. The media is just exercising its freedom of expression. What’s wrong with that?

The fact that the media CAN do something, does not mean it actually has to do it. This situation where other newspapers – and many blogs – feel obligated to print the offensive cartoons simply because they can, reminds me of car chases. I grew up in Southern California where the television news programs were super competitive. And they all had helicopters, which they would use for traffic reports. So what does this have to do with the cartoons? Well, the thinking of the media in both cases seems to be “We CAN do something, so we must.” Thus every time there was a car chase on the freeways, be it OJ Simpson or someone in a tank or whatever, the choppers would fly above the chase and film it and the channels would broadcast it live. This is news? This is the best way to use the technology and air waves?

So I ask: Are there not better, more important stories that these newspapers can be covering? Sure, publications have found a way to offend people and get a reaction and thus more news, but is it really worth all this space and attention?

3) How can we not cover the protests since it’s news?

Yes, but it is news because you made it news. News organizations are not supposed to be part of the story – that’s a journalism 101 lesson. But that’s exactly what is going on – newspapers are printing the cartoons and then writing about the reactions to it. And some newspapers, like this one in Philadelphia, are upset because the Associated Press is not distributing the cartoons. Boo hoo. Do you really need to print the cartoons to guess what the reaction to them will be?

4) If we don’t print the cartoons we are being censored, aren’t we?

No, you are just choosing to not run cartoons. Every day news organizations choose what they want to include in the next edition and what they want to leave out. What makes this different?

Let me add four questions of my own. Feel free to answer them in the comments below.

Where is the line between exercising the freedom of expression and provoking just to get a reaction?

Isn’t this controversy just leading to more ugly divisions and stereotyping of Muslims?

If this is just about selling newspapers then how does that explain why so many bloggers, including a bunch here at BlogCritics, are writing about it too?

Lastly if the cartoons showed Jesus Christ blowing up a house in Iraq would so many take the same position on those cartoons?

Now, some are going to read this and suggest I am saying newspapers should always avoid printing offensive material? Let me be clear: That is not what I am saying. I am saying that if a newspaper is going to print something which they know to be offensive, they should make sure it has some news value. A good example is the controversy over Tom Toles’ cartoon of an injured soldier. Offensive? Possibly. Effective at making a point? Definitely. Worthy of publication because it makes a point? Definitely.

But I have yet to hear a good argument on what point was made by printing these cartoons of Muhammed. Instead, I have to wonder if the point was to be offensive and shocking and provoke a reaction?

Well, mission accomplished.

Your constant reader,

Scott Butki

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin.He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one.He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle.He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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