As long as cartoonists have been drawing their opinions on issues and individuals, there have been politicians who would censure them, editors who would not print them and people who would hang them from the nearest tree limb. Violence and threats are not new to our profession.
Thomas Nast was the intended victim of an assassination attempt. He was also offered a $500,000 bribe to take an extended vacation abroad by boss Tweed, who said (given the literacy of the day) it didn’t make any difference what people wrote about him—"but they could understand those damn cartoons!"
Evangelicals were outraged by a cartoon of Jerry Falwell that appeared in Hustler magazine. The resulting lawsuit went to the U.S. Supreme Court where the decision came down on the side of the First Amendment. (I, for one would not bet on a similar ruling from today’s Court, however!)
When I was at the Kansas City Star, an outraged postman came storming across the city room towards my desk—knocking over file boxes and upending typewriters. The security guards were right behind him and caught him just as he reached into his satchel and threw a bunch of Ku Klux Klan flyers at me. They were drawings of blacks choking and molesting young white women.
Later at the Milwaukee Journal I received ominous letters accurately locating my parking space in our lot and suggesting I should be careful when I start my car.
Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Neo-Nazi party in the 70s, was shot and killed by one of his young followers who turned out to be the cartoonist for his propaganda magazine. The cartoon feature he drew was titled Whiteman—a take off on Superman—who battled the "evil" Coonman (black, of course) in defense of white womanhood. His reason for shooting Rockwell was never disclosed.
Below are three of the cartoons that Muslim fanatics claim have driven them to riot and violence. Of course it is a myth that any graphic depiction of Muhammad is always forbidden in their culture. (See, below, the second illustration from the top ) It is also likely that there is not much of an extemporaneous element in the mass demonstrations and destruction.
For those (of any religion) who are raised to believe they are keepers of the only truth–--it is not much of leap to accept the demonization of those who are not "true believers." As a result it is not only easy for true believers to hear the siren call of messianic demagogues, it is a sacred duty to dance to their tune. We are now reaping the whirlwind of Muslim nations who looked the other way as their madrassas (schools) were taken over by militant extremists who taught hatred and violence as the cutting edge of their fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Their progeny are the ones fanning the flames of violent protests.
U.S. Foreign policy in that part of the world----particularly the war in Iraq—has been a contributing factor in giving a larger context to the discontent and anger among the world’s Muslim population. Likewise, moderate and progressive Muslims have been sitting on their hands as the worst elements of their religion commit brutal murders in the name of Muhammad----thus giving tacit approval to the mayhem.
LIPSERVICE WON'T DO IT!
Frankly, the most disturbing element in the current flap over the cartoons is the almost universal, gutless defense of the free press and the First Amendment here in the United States.
Leonard Downie Jr. , executive editor of the Washington Post said, "the very nature of depicting Mohammad (his spelling, not mine) editorially is not an ambiguous question. Either you do it or you don’t. It is never a concern over reactions. It is a concern over what the Washington Post decides to publish. We’re maintaining our standards." (Whatever that means!)
Other editors slid behind the old bromide of not wanting to be "gratuitously offensive".
John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle said, "I don’t see the necessity to run them."
Well, John, let me see if I can shed some light on that for you. What is the biggest world wide NEWS story of the last few days?----right!—CARTOONS cause protests, riots, arson and deaths!It is a NEWS story, John--for goodness sakes. Not just A news story—it is a BIG news story—and you don’t see the necessity of including it’s most important element? If there were no cartoons, there would be no story to report. This is about giving your readers competent and accurate reporting on a major event. Yes, it may be offensive to some readers and may make others very angry. But we are not talking about the print media yelling fire in a crowded theater! We’re talking about journalism 101!
This self censorship puts print media in the position of being held hostage to the lowest common denominator of tolerance for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It adds more grease to an already slippery slope upon which our media is sliding.
The last 20 years had seen newspapers compromise their public watchdog role at an ever increasing rate. The reportorial standard of Who, What, When, Where , How and Why. Has steadily devolved to "He said! She said!" -----mimicking the faux-journalism of television. Editorials, if not dead---are mouribund. The only real opinions on editorial pages are found in the political cartoons--and cartoonists are getting the ax by publishers unwilling to pay for having their grey flannel comfort disturbed.
That decline and the failure of aggressively sounding editorial alarm bells has facilitated the diminution of civil liberties to the point where voters are deaf to the sounds of our Constitution crumbling out from under their feet.
Meanwhile, television—-which has no journalistic ethics to speak of–--has masterfully filled the void with a right-wing agenda propagated by talking heads (faux-journalists) who have little or no regard for facts or accuracy.
The result, to date, is an administration that has cynically convinced 50% of the population to eagerly hand over their civil liberties to a cadre of straw-men scenarios stuffed with a harvest of fear and bound with lies and deceptions.
Increasingly, the internet---even with its excesses and its prolific, whacky nature---is the only place for mining nuggets of courageous journalism.