What's going on with U.S. journalists? Twelve people are murdered in Paris because Charlie Hebdo, a satiric French paper, published offensive cartoons about the prophet Muhammad. Yet many U.S. news organizations won't show the cartoons that caused the violence?
Seems like a double standard to me.
CNN, The New York Times and NBC, which daily champion free speech, decided not to show the offensive cartoons. Why?
The Associated Press pointed to a "longstanding policy" not to distribute provocative images.
Jeff Zucker, CNN Worldwide president, cited safety: "Journalistically, every bone says we want to use and should use" the cartoons. Of course, there's a qualifier. "As managers, protecting and taking care of the safety of our employees around the world is more important right now."
That smells like fear to me. And it's exactly what terrorists want. We are playing into their hands. As for the news organizations making excuses for not showing the offensive French cartoons, I ask you: Why did you show pictures of the 9/11 attacks? Weren't you afraid that there would be more attacks? Didn't you need to protect your employees then?
Ken Paulson, president and CEO of the First Amendment Center, and former USA Today editor, disagrees that the cartoons must be published. "That's a call to be made individually, based on a newsroom's own values. At the heart of a free press is the right to publish — or not to."
A handful decided to forge ahead. Kudos to The Washington Post for showing one image in its print edition. Fred Hiatt, the newspaper's editorial page editor, explained: "I think seeing the cover will help readers understand what this is all about."
USA Today took a stand by publishing a montage of the cartoons, along with this editorial commending the cartoonists' actions:
The satirists might be unlikely heroes, but they are heroes nevertheless — martyrs to that most fundamental of Western values, the right to free expression, which they chose to exercise despite threats and a firebombing just three years ago that might have muted others.
Nick Galifianakis, award-winning cartoonist for The Washington Post, agrees. "But it is ... tragic that in an open and free society, simply by being everything that true cartoonists should be, heroism was imposed on them."
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, took a different tack, blaming the media for being too provocative. On Neil Cavuto's Fox News program, Donohue said Muslims are right to be angry. While condemning the Muslim barbarians who committed the crimes, adding he hoped they pay a price for their actions, he attacked the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. They "are acting like a bunch of libertine thugs." And he said they are perverting their rights by choosing to publish juvenile insults; he called for moral restraint. Donohue stopped short of saying the journalists got what they asked for.
Donohue's intolerance for free speech is hard to fathom coming from a man who regularly uses caustic speech to make his points about the Catholic Church and who says he works to safeguard free speech for Catholics.
You can't have it both ways, Bill.
Paulson, who has devoted decades to educating students and journalists about free speech, says it's fair game to argue that faiths shouldn't be disrespected in the media, but "this isn't about editorial decision-making. It's about someone paying the ultimate price for publishing what they believe. Freedom of conscience is at stake here."
Either you believe in journalists' ability to create offensive satire or you don't. We cannot back down from free speech. Ever.
This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Fox News has presented the cartoons online.
Ashburn is an award-winning Washington-based reporter and TV analyst covering media and politics.