Double Standard: NYT Sides with Muslims, but "Piss Christ" Foes Were Compared to Nazis

One would hope and expect a liberal newspaper like the New York Times to have the meager virtue of consistency on matters of freedom of expression, particularly in defense of another newspaper. As the world now knows, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad last September, considered taboo (though not always recognized as such) by Muslims.

But Times reporter Craig Smith apparently found the cartoons themselves far more inflammatory than he did the actual rioting of Muslims burning embassies in Syria and Lebanon. Even the headline to his Sunday Week in Review story suggests the Danish newspaper's exercise of free speech was somehow irresponsible, likening it to pouring fuel on a flame: “Adding Newsprint to the Fire.”

Smith irresponsibly compares the Danish cartoonists to racist anti-black and anti-Semitic cartoons:

“But this did not take place in a political vacuum. Hostile feelings have been growing between Denmark's immigrants and a government supported by the right-wing Danish People's Party, which has pushed anti-immigrant policies. And stereotyping in cartoons has a notorious history in Europe, where anti-Semitic caricatures fed the Holocaust, just as they feed anti-Israeli propaganda in the Middle East today.

“In the current climate, some experts on mass communications suggest, the exercise was no more benign than commissioning caricatures of African-Americans would have been during the 1960's civil rights struggle. ‘You have to ask what was the intent of these cartoons, bearing in mind the recent history of tension in Denmark with the Muslim community,’ said David Welch, head of the Center for the Study of Propaganda and War at the University of Kent in Britain. Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, put it this way: ‘He knew what he was doing.’”

Back in the 1990s, the Times took a far different tone regarding two excretory-based exhibits offensive to Christians -- though back then the controversy came without the violent protests, death threats, or fire-bombings of embassies we are seeing today.

Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” consistied of a crucifix submerged in a tank of Serrano’s urine. Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” showed the icon clotted with elephant dung and surrounded by pornographic cut-outs.

On October 2, 1999, the editors dealt with Christian offense in a single clause, before calling for art that “challenge[d] the public”:

“To be sure, many citizens of conscience find parts of the Brooklyn exhibition repugnant, and it is understandable that many Roman Catholics would find Chris Ofili's image of the Virgin Mary offensive. Others would agree with our colleague William Safire that while the Brooklyn Museum has a right to show what it likes, the administrators have been clumsy or needlessly provocative. Yet a Daily News poll shows that the majority of New Yorkers support the museum over Mayor Giuliani by a ratio of two to one. Those numbers show a broad-based support for New York's role as the nation's cultural capital. The people understand intuitively what Mr. Giuliani ignores for political gain. A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.”

On October 9, 1999, Frank Rich, then columnist and now an Arts editor-columnist for the paper, compared Giuliani’s threatened denial of taxpayer funding (a move that was blocked anyway) to the Nazi’s notorious 1937 condemnation of “degenerate art.”

Most galling in retrospect was a May 3, 1998 article by contributing arts writer Amei Wallach, a favorable feature on a show that compared “Piss Christ” protesters to the Nazis.

“Goebbels is long and thin; Hitler closely resembles a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. Dressed in clown ruffs, they nudge each other onto the stage in the Irondale Ensemble Project's musical theater-cabaret caper ‘Degenerate Art,'....the troupe is seeking to link 1990's debates about the N.E.A. with the 1937 ‘Entartete Kunst’ (‘Degenerate Art’) exhibition in Munich, which the Nazi Government organized to show the German people the kind of art they were meant to hate.”

Wallach doesn't blink when an arts curator compares objections to tax funding of "Piss Christ" to Goebbels and Hitler:

“Such rhetoric sounded chillingly contemporary to Stephanie Barron, curator of 20th-century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when she was preparing ‘Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,’ the 1991 exhibition from which the Irondale Ensemble drew its inspiration. At the time when Ms. Barron was completing her reconstruction of the ‘Entartete Kunst’ show, some American senators and congressmen were using comparable language to denounce the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano in their opening salvos against the N.E.A. In her catalogue essay, Ms. Barron noted ‘an uncomfortable parallel between the enemies of artistic freedom today and those responsible for organizing the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition’ more than a half century before.”

TimesWatch also sees an “uncomfortable parallel” -- one between the Times' sympathetic stance toward tax-funded art offensive to Christians, and its hypocritical failure to defend newspaper cartoons offensive to Muslims.

For more examples of Times bias, visit Times Watch.

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