A comic controversy

The Washington Post and approximately 25 other newspapers refused to publish a comic strip depicting Islam in what could be a controversial light. Is their decision just, or is it indicative of a free press ready and willing to undermine itself?

We all remember the massive protests that sprung up after a Danish newspaper published a series of editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Recently another controversy involving newspaper comics and Islam has sprung up. and this time the debate centers around how some news media refused to publish the comic, as opposed to those who did.

In this case, the comic was the August 26 edition of Opus, and a September 2 follow up to the storyline. Approximately 25 newspapers opted not to publish the comic including The Washington Post. Alan Shearer from The Post Writers Group details what transpired:
In the Aug. 26 strip, we see what may be the first example on the comics pages of an Islamist-looking character other than a machine-gun toting terrorist. Comics historians will correct me within minutes if I'm wrong. And the final gag in the strip was a mild sex joke, deftly done in my view.

The Writers Group decided to call client editors' attention to the Aug. 26 strip and offer a previously published installment if they were uncomfortable with this one. This is routine -- though not all that frequent -- because we cannot edit every strip for local taste and sensibilities. Many papers carry strips and comics concepts that were popular in the 1950s.
Are the comics offensive to some Muslims? Probably, but if everything that offended someone were sanitized for publication we'd be living in Orwell's 1984 and every single publication would be stamped by the Ministry of Truth. Thankfully we're not quite there and I feel that the newspaper's decision not to publish the cartoons was not only cowardly but also makes for a bad example.

Unlike the graphic depictions of Muhammad, something which is forbidden in the Quran, the cartoons depict an American women who decides to convert to Islam after experimenting with the Amish religion. There is no reason to think that publishing the cartoon would ignite the violence generated by the Danish paper, and fear of protest cannot be an acceptable reason for a news outlet to silence its voices. Perhaps a disclaimer stating that the views of the cartoonist are not representative of the paper should be affixed to the strip to eliminate any confusion, but refusing to publish it is not the solution.

Newspapers' role in society is not to be sensitive to the possible concerns of people in the community. The role of a newspaper is to delivers facts and editorials and both of these will, and should, offend certain people from time to time. That's ok, but it's not ok to buckle under these perceived sensitivities. This week it's a cartoon about Muslims, but opening this door means that it's acceptable to protect the sanctity of other religions, and possibly even political parties and the politicians themselves. The day that government officials are safe from political satire is the day that we drive the final nail into democracy's coffin. I hope that day never comes but this story of how the Washington Post and others refused to publish these comics brings us one step closer toward that bleak reality.
About the author

    Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.

     

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