The New York Times Isn't Afraid to Run All Religiously Offensive Images

The New York Times smugly explained to Buzzfeed why it refuses to rerun the "offensive" images of the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo, the Paris magazine that was the site of a massacre on Wednesday that killed 12.

Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities. After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan cited executive editor Dean Baquet.

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.

Instead of Baquet forthrightly saying that he feared reprisals against Times staffers if he ran the "incendiary" Muhammad images, he weakly argued that the images were "sacrilegious" and of "gratuitous insult."

But as Politico's Dylan Byers reported, the Times has previously published cartoons that offend Jewish sensibilities without any apparent concerns:

...in August 2010, the Times published this item about a Holocaust-denying Iranian cartoonist with an image of a cartoon that featured, in the Times' words, "anti-Jewish caricatures." Four years earlier, in 2006, the Times published this article about an Iranian exhibition of "anti-Jewish art," which featured a photograph of three anti-Semitic cartoons, one of which included a swastika. (Our thanks to Bloomberg's Joe Weisenthal for both of these.)

In an email to POLITICO, Baquet noted that he wasn't executive editor when the two pieces were published, and added, "I obviously don't feel an obligation to follow anyone else's edict."

"Here is how I made the call, and it wasn't easy," he continued. "We have a standard that is pretty simple. We don't run things that are designed to gratuitously offend. That's what the French cartoons were actually designed to do. That was their purpose, and for that publication it is a fine purpose. But it isn't ours. So I had to decide whether it was so important to the story to show the drawings, important enough to drop the standard. And the answer was they were not. We could describe them. And anyone who wanted to see them could easily do so."

Gawker's J.K. Trotter has a rebuttal in pictures of previous offensive images reprinted by the Times, though some are racist as opposed to anti-religious in nature.

And Newsbusters has long pointed out the hypocrisy in the paper refusing to run images of Muhammad while proudly showing art offensive to Christians, like the dung-clotted "painting" of the Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili.

So what else could explain the paper running the anti-Semitic and anti-Christian images, which also caused religious offense? What could be the difference? Baquet lacked the honesty to say: Fear of reprisal.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.