2010 cases: “Where’s Muhammad” cartoon case

Gaby Jimenes

1. Introduction of the case

On Sunday, October 10, 2010, Wiley Miller, the creator of the “Non Sequitur” comic strip created a cartoon called ‘Where’s Muhammad?’  This comic strip is very popular and runs in about 800 newspapers including the Washington Post.  Even though Miller is known for producing social satire in his cartoons, editors at The Post and at many other papers pulled the cartoon out and replaced it with one that had previously been seen.  Miller’s cartoon was similar to the best-selling children’s book “Where’s Waldo?”, except that in Miller’s creation, the prophet Muhammad did not appear. The cartoon depicts a lazy, sunny park scene with the caption, “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher…’Where’s Muhammad?’ Characters in the park are buying ice cream, fishing, roller skating, etc.  No character is depicted even as Middle Eastern. (MvKen, 2010) His cartoon was intended to be a satirical reference to the global furor that ensued in 2006 after a Danish newspaper invited cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they see him.  After these cartoons were published, Muslims in many places demonstrated against what they viewed as the lampooning of Islam’s most holy figure.  Even though the prophet Muhammad did not come out in the comic, Editor Ned Martel said he decided to pull it after conferring with others, including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, because “it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.”  He also mentioned that “the point of the joke was not immediately clear” and that readers might not realize that Muhammad wasn’t in the drawing. (Alexander, 2010)

Some people accused the Post of censorship because they took the cartoon out.  One person’s comment on the cartoon read, “Washington Post does not dare offend Muslims.  Washington Post is terrified to offend Muslims, because Muslims, unlike Christians, will kill or maim over a perceived insult.  It plainly reveals that only violence is respected by radical leftists.” (Alexander, 2010)  Is this person’s comment really true?  Pictures of Jesus Christ or crucifixes can be put in newspapers comics without hesitation, and Miller’s cartoon was taken out when Muhammad wasn’t even in the drawing.  In fact, does anybody really even know what Muhammad looks? There are many different depictions of him, just like there are many different depictions of Jesus, or even Santa Clause.  It just depends what region of the world one lives in.

Journalistically, this case has to do with the problem of who should decide what material is too offensive for the public.  This is an important issue because when you think about it, many different newspapers and news stations have different criteria for this and there is nobody to say that one group is wrong and the other isn’t.  This problem can be seen as an ethical one, journalists’ morals help them decide what to put in their stories, editors’ morals sometimes cause them to take out something they think is offensive, and lastly the publics’ morals are the ones that get affected by the decisions of the people working in the news room.  A professional solution to consider in the “Where’s Muhammad?” case would be to get a couple more opinions of people in the news room of whether it was offensive or not.  The best opinions to consider would be of the people who aren’t writing journalists, for example a photo journalists’ opinion or a secretary; people who aren’t trained in a way to think journalistically or to think about whether something would offend somebody else.

The Columbine case relates to the “Where’s Muhammad?” case when it comes to journalism issues.  In the Columbine case, some key principle questions are: how do reporters decide what to put in their stories? What should be censored and who will be offended? Reporters faced these problems when they interviewed students and caught things on film right as they were happening.  The reporters of the Columbine case had footage of a student falling out of a window and had to decide if it was to offensive for the community to know about.  Some news reporters decided it was and some decided it wasn’t.  Just like the “Where’s Muhammad?” cartoon, the editor thought it was too offensive and didn’t publish it, but not every single newspaper took the cartoon out.  The Columbine case reporters also had to decide whether or not to use a quote from a young girl because she said that the shooter killed a student because he was black.  Would this be offensive to African American parents who had children at the school?  That example helps provide context for the “Where’s Muhammad?” case because the almost same exact problem occurred.  The question was, would this be offensive to Muslims?  By relating these two cases it helps understand what the journalists were going through.  The Columbine case was a stressful period for reporters and had a lot of emotions happening at once.  The “Where’s Muhammad?” case left the editors with those same emotions, even though it didn’t seem as big of a deal as the Columbine case, because they didn’t want to offend their Muslim readers.  Miller was trying to be provocative in making his cartoon but people expect that from the “Non Sequitur” comic, but there is a difference between provoking anger and provoking readers to think. (Alexander, 2010)

While analyzing these two cases, it’s interesting to think about what criteria was used because obviously not every news station or newspaper based their decisions to show the footage or the cartoon on the same reasons. Even though some journalists decide to publish some things that other journalists don’t because they consider it to not be appropriate, this problem of censorship has and will continue to arise in the lives of journalists and different opinions will always be argued.



2.     Background Context Research

Miller was furious when he heard that many newspapers were also replacing his cartoon with previous ones.  This award-winning cartoonist from Maine said “the cartoon was meant to satirize the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons,” as well as “media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that that contains the word ‘Muhammad’.”  The apparent irony is that even big newspapers like The Washington Post run in fear of the very tame cartoon, which validates the accuracy of the satire.  The satire was on the media, not Islam.  On Fox News, Miller states that the editors didn’t see the satire was on them; that as a satirist it’s his job to point out the stupidity in the world and the editors fell right in line with proving how stupid it is.  (Miller, 2010)   The “Where’s Muhammad?” cartoon was accidentally posted on The Post’s web site.  Brauchli pointed out that they normally would not have done that if it had been withheld from print.  Since it was on the internet, Fox News asked him what kind of feedback his cartoon received and he replied that he has yet to receive a single piece of correspondence from fans who were upset or offended by the drawing.  “Quite the contrary, they loved it!” he said.  (Miller, 2010) Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, commented that “the reference [to Muhammad] in this case was so vague that I don’t even know if offense comes into it.”

Washington Post editors believe their decision was sensible, when reminded of past cartoon controversies and heightened sensitivities surrounding Islam.  (Alexander, 2010) This is a good opposing view point to take into consideration.  The fact that The Post and many other newspapers decided to yank the “Where’s Muhammad?” cartoon may have been influenced by an advisory that had been sent to them by Universal UClick, which syndicates “Non Sequitur” to about 800 papers; Sue Roush is the vice president and managing editor of UClick and she said the advisory merely alerted editors that the drawing may be of some concern in some communities and offered a replacement strip.  By looking at it in this point of view, editors were only trying to be careful in what they put out for the public to see.  However, I agree with the next statement Roush made.  She said it was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation because if you call attention to it at all, people tend to think, ‘Oh, it must be a problem or they wouldn’t be sending me this.’ (Alexander A. , 2010)  Cartoon controversies are no small matter.  An article in the New York Times presents a review about a court hearing where prosecutors pursuing against a group of Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic were suspected of plotting to kill a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the head of the prophet Muhammad atop the body of a dog.  (Eamon Quinn, 2010) Why was this person’s cartoon allowed to appear in the news while the “Where’s Muhammad?” cartoon was not?    This article shows an opposing point of view because people were clearly very upset and maybe this cartoon should have been reviewed more carefully before the editor decided to run it.  According to William Bourdon, a French lawyer who has handled high-profile freedom of speech cases, states in another New York Times article that “The limit to freedom of expression is the point at which there is intent to harm a person or community, and it’s not because there was a reaction that there should be a presumption of intent.”   (Smith, 2006) Some may be displeased by “Where’s Muhammad?” but unlike with the cartoon by the Swedish man, it’s hard to imagine it would start a protest.  Miller definitely had a right to draw the cartoon and the Post has the right to run or withhold it but essentially it is a question of editorial judgment.  Miller’s cartoon isn’t an improper attack on Muhammad; it’s more of a powerful and witty endorsement of freedom of expression.  That is the big journalistic issue surrounding this controversial problem.  Why should somebody’s freedom of expression be disregarded just because a few people might find something offensive?  What about the people who find it intriguing and creative?  Everybody has different opinions.  Should the cartoonist suffer because the editor’s opinions don’t match his own?  Should more than just one person have the power to make these decisions?  Newspapers should always consider the religious sensitivities of readers, but to what extent?

According to an article in the Columbia Journal, “censorship is anytime material is kept away from eyes or ears because of its content.  But is that censorship warranted?”  (Golberg, 2007) That is what journalists everywhere have trouble with when it comes to deciding what to publish.  Another Columbia Journalism Review states “we tend to shy away from censorship; in cases of controversial topics, if we err, we tend to do so on the side of freedom of speech…we do so in the belief that it is the best interests of our readers for our pages to be open as possible.” (Hettena, 2008)  There is an appallingly low verge for decisions on whether to withhold images that might offend a group of people.

“It is a huge contradiction when newspapers and TV shows treat radical Islam with kid gloves and yet have very little problem portraying other religions in a bad light.”  This quote was another comment that was posted about the cartoon.  (Alexander A. , 2010)  Religion is always going to be a touchy subject, which is why journalists get into problems like this in the first place.  Nobody wants to be the one to offend a certain religion but sometimes it happens accidentally.  These are all ethical and moral questions that journalists have to consider.  Just like one of the elements of journalism says, the news must serve as an independent monitor of power and make good, knowledgeable decisions based on what they believe is the right thing to do.


3. Key Questions

While thinking about the “Where’s Muhammad?” case, there are a few questions one should keep in mind.

1.    What criteria is used or should be used to determine if something is considered offensive?  Do you think the editors did the right thing in taking it out?  After all, they did it with good intentions, even though it was Miller’s job to make a cartoon that was satirical. Should there be a set of guidelines for editors everywhere to follow and would this make journalism reporting better?  Even if it might take out some creativeness in certain stories?

2.    If The Post had published the cartoon, based on the evidence we now know, what would the public have thought?  Would The Post have lost some readers?  And is that important?  Because it’s like the saying goes,”You win some, you lose some.”

3.     If you were an editor, what would you have done?  Would you follow out the professional solution that I suggested earlier?  What other solutions is there when this a case with an ethical question where there are many different answers?  Who is to say one answer is better?

4.    If the editors would have known that the cartoon was more of pointing out satire among editors than Muslims, would they have published it?  Wouldn’t this defeat the purpose of what the cartoon was meant for?

I believe these are important questions because they are questions most people don’t think about when reading the newspaper, but all of these questions are work that happen in newsrooms or in a journalists mind when writing a story or making a comic.  They are important for students like me to consider, especially if we want to be journalists someday.

4. Teachers Guide

This case’s biggest question is a question of editorial judgement.  The group of questions under question 1 should have the students thinking about whether what the editors did was right or wrong, which of course has no right answer but it’s important that the students realize the many factors that have to be considered to make a good decision.  These questions then lead into the group of questions under question 3.  These questions should guide the class to think about what they would have done if they were the editors.  These questions can engage a large class because everyone is going to have different opinions and some students might provide insight into their own unique ideas that they think the editors should have thought of.  The goal here is for the students to realize that everybody is right, and once students see that, try to get them to think of ways of how journalists everywhere should handle cases like this.  What should editors do when they believe something should be taken out, but maybe their partner thinks it should stay?

Next, you should address the questions under question 4, because this is still dealing with editors.  This question can be the foundation for a deep discussion, have the students pretend to be in the shoes of the editors again, have them think about the question: would publishing this cartoon be insulting to us as editors?  After this, have them look at the questions under question 2.  This changes the view point to the views of the audience.  Have them think about how Muslims would feel, change it up to have them picture it better and ask them what if it was their religious idol being depicted in a cartoon like this if they would be offended.  Make sure the class discusses the opposing viewpoints of the case, as these are the most important issues.  They need to think about the editors for the cartoon, the editors against the cartoon, how this would affect the paper’s reputation, and last but not least the public’s reaction.

5.    Works Cited

Alexander, A. (2010, October 12). Omblog. Retrieved 2010 16, November, from The Washington Post: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ombudsman-blog/2010/10/readers_insist_on_equal_treatm.html

Alexander, A. (2010, October 10). Where was the “Where’s Muhammad?” Cartoon. Retrieved November 16, 2010, from American Renaissance.com: http://www.amren.com/mtnews/archives/2010/10/where_was_the_w.php

Eamon Quinn, J. B. (2010, March 16). Irish Hearing Provides Details on a Suspected Plot to Kill a Swedish Cartoonist. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from The New York Times: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9901E1D7163FF935A25750C0A9669D8B63&ref=lars_vilks

Golberg, D. (2007, February 19). Lucky Sparks New Censorship Debate. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from Columbia Journalism Review: http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/lucky_sparks_new_censorship_de.php?page=all&print=true

Hettena, S. (2008, October 21). Obsession with Controversy. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from Columbia Journalism Review: http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/obsession_with_controversy.php?page=1

Miller, J. R. (2010, October 11). Cartoonist Seeing Red After ‘Muhammad’ Cartoon Yanked. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/10/11/cartoonist-seeing-red-muhammad-cartoon-yanked/

MvKen, J. (2010, October 02). Newspapers refuse to publish cartoon that satirizes media’s fear of Muhammad cartoons . Retrieved November 16, 2010, from Preliator Pro Causa: http://preliatorcausa.blogspot.com/2010/10/newspapers-refuse-to-publish-cartoon.html

Nelson, J. (2003). New Orleans Times-Picayune Series on Racism. In A. S. Tom Rosenstiel, Thinking Clearly (p. 183). New York: Columbia University Press .

6. Other References

Shepard, A. C. (2003). Columbine School Shooting: Live Television Coverage. In A. S. Tom Rosenstiel, Thinking Clearly (p. 82). New York: Columbia University Press.

Smith, C. S. (2006, February 6). Adding Newsprint to the Fire. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/weekinreview/05smith.html?scp=4&sq=cases%20about%20censorship%20in%20journalism%20cartoon%20drawings&st=cse


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