Political Cartoons: Where is the line drawn?
In January 2015, French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. In 2006, Charlie Hebdo began reprinting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (CNN). However, this French paper was not the only one of it’s kind. American cartoonist Douglas Marlette wrote in the winter 2004 issue of Nieman Reports, “Cartoons are the acid test of the First Amendment.” His opening sentences to this article were, “Kurt Vonnegut once compared the artist to the canary in the coal mine, a hypersensitive creature who alerts hardier life forms to toxic gases by kindly dropping dead. Given the steady demise of editorial cartoonists during the past several years, newspapers might begin to wonder about the quality of the air,” (Marlette).
Two years prior to this article in Nieman, the Pulitzer Prize winner Marlette was the author of the controversial cartoon “What Would Mohammed Drive,” originally running in The Tallahassee Democrat. His depiction of a Middle Eastern-looking man behind the steering wheel of a nuclear-bomb laden truck struck a chord around the country, especially in the wake of 9/11. A reporter for WND, Art Moore, covered Marlette’s lack of sympathy for those offended as “Marlette noted his cartoon is a takeoff on the recent controversy among some Protestants over the morality of driving gas-guzzling SUVs – ‘What Would Jesus drive?’” Marlette also went on to explain that as a cartoonist working in the geopolitical atmosphere of the United States post-9/11, “it is a natural step to ask, ‘What would Muhammad Drive,’” (Moore). The uproar of Muslims around the world began sending Marlette death threats as well as bold claims that “depictions of their prophet to be blasphemous, but Marlette told WND he did not have Muhammad in mind when he drew the picture of the truck driver, but rather a ‘generic’ Arab headdress-wearing man,” (Moore).
Likewise, The Tallahassee Democrat did not apologize for running the cartoon since it did not run in their print edition, rather, it went viral online. Surprisingly, Marlette went on to say the objective of his cartoon “is not to soothe and tend sensitive psyches, but to jab and poke in an attempt to get at deeper truths, popular or otherwise. The truth, like it or not, is that Muslim fundamentalists have committed devastating acts of terrorism against our country in the name of their prophet,” (Marlette).
Executive Editor of the paper, John Winn Miller, continued to defend the paper’s deliberate decision not to print it and to just put it on their website.
“Frankly, [I] am uneasy about making fun of religious icons in the Democrat. We have run cartoons making fun of priests because of their actions in the abuse scandal – but not because of their religion. There were some cartoons that we did not run because we thought they crossed the line of good taste. Different editors draw that line in different places,” Miller said (Moore).
The controversy surrounding Marlette’s cartoon reflects a distasteful feeling towards political cartoons worldwide and as Marlette said, “They push boundaries of free speech.” However, even the SPJ Code of Ethics have questioned cases such as Marlette’s in the past and pose several questions: “Is it freedom of expression? Or is it unnecessary provocation? Is there an acceptable middle ground between showing the blunt truth and minimizing the harm of insult?” (SPJ). Personally, I think the West does have a past of trivializing important or even sacred symbols or experiences of the rest of the world. Regardless of our freedoms of speech, “A responsible journalist’s intent should be to inform, not to offend,” (SPJ). Furthermore, “ this was only the latest manifestation of a long history of bullying, humiliation and marginalization of Muslims by Europe and the United States,” (SPJ).
Again, I am faced with a tough question of how I would have handled this piece in my own organization. As a peer, I believe I would have felt frustration but not necessarily in a position to voice opposition. However, as an Executive Editor in Miller’s position, I believe I would have done the exact thing Miller decided to do. Rather than running it in the paper, putting it online allows for it to flow in the influx of other information. In theory, access to the Internet should also provide greater context or information than a 50-page paper can. Therefore, by putting the cartoon on the Internet Miller was allowing it to live indefinitely but was also allowing the readers to further educate themselves on the geopolitics that Marlette says he was commenting on. However, unlike Miller, I likely would have issued an apology to the large outrage of the images and explained the reasoning behind my/the paper’s decision.