Earlier this week, the New York Times published an image of Pope Benedict XVI made entirely of condoms. Some asked why the Times published this image after refusing to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons back in January. There seems to be a double standard at play.
Public editor Margaret Sullivan cites an explanation by standards editor Philip B. Corbett, who attempts to explain the different treatment of the Mohammed cartoons and the Pope-condom image.
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.
It’s frankly astounding that someone with the title of “standards editor” at the New York Times could write something so clueless in so many and varied ways. First off, Corbett writes that it was not the “primary intent” of the Pope/condom artist to offend, which leaves open that it was a secondary or tertiary intention. More importantly, does Corbett believe it was the “primary intent” of the Charlie Hebdo artists to offend Muslims? According to the artists and people who knew them, that was not their “primary intent.” In fact, here’s how “Charb,” one of the victims of the massacre, was described in the NY Times:
Mr. Charbonnier did not see it in those terms, those who knew him and who had followed his magazine’s work said. It was, for him, a matter of freedom to think and speak as one wished, said Daniel Leconte, who made a documentary about Charlie Hebdo and its battles over the Muhammad cartoons.
“They were so friendly, so funny,” Mr. Leconte said, describing a team of artists led by Mr. Charbonnier. “They were not doctrinaire at all. They liked liberty, they liked freedom,” he said. (Emphasis added.)
So just as the Pope/condom artist wants to raise social questions about AIDS, the Charlie Hebdo artists wanted to raise social questions about freedom of expression. Why doesn’t Corbett know this? Neither artist had offense as their primary motivation, though it’s obvious both were willing to countenance it.
Corbett’s next claim is the most troubling. He argues that the reaction to the two pieces of art is itself the reason to treat them differently, i.e. “there doesn’t seem to be any comparable level of outrage.” Corbett cites the reaction to the Danish cartoons, but that’s a dodge. We don’t need to go back years to discuss outrage over cartoons. The murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff are the very expression of outrage Corbett is citing as a reason not to run the cartoons.
You really have to think this through a bit. Corbett is not saying, apologetically, that the heckler’s veto works because the NY Times is afraid to make itself the next target. That would be cowardly, but at least it would be honest. Instead, he is saying the fact that no one has died over the Pope-condom art proves the Times was right to publish it. And so, conversely, the fact that the Charlie Hebdo staff was massacred by outraged Islamists seeking to avenge their prophet’s honor proves the Times was right not to run the Mohammed cartoons.
What Corbett ought to know is that outrage, in and of itself, proves nothing. We’ve had lots of big hoaxes premised on outrage recently. The fake gang rape at UVA comes to mind, as does the killing of the supposedly surrendering Mike Brown by a racist white police officer. Neither of those things happened. The fact that people were genuinely outraged did not make the stories true. In the same sense, the fact that Muslims were genuinely outraged about a cartoon does not make their belief Mohammed was a prophet any more true for the rest of us. It’s not the New York Times‘ job to insulate their beliefs from what others think. That ought to be the case for Muslims as well as Catholics.
As for the newsworthiness of the Hebdo cartoons vs. the Pope-condom art, that also plays against Corbett’s argument. One could argue (and to be fair to her, Margaret Sullivan does say this) that if outrage does anything at all, it’s to give a greater reason to publish. Clearly the massacre in Paris generated vastly more news. But, curiously, Corbett is arguing too much outrage is evidence something should not be in the news. That’s a very strange standard for one of the nation’s leading newspapers to hold.