The New York Times offered a strange explanation this week for its double standard in publishing images that could offend religious groups:
It boils down to: Muslims riot and go on murderous rampages; Catholics don’t.
The Times chose to print the image earlier this week of a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI created from condoms (“Eggs Benedict” by artist Niki Johnson), but had refused to publish the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in January.
When asked by readers for an explanation of the judgement process, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan attempted to explain the different treatment the images received.
Her column included a response from Philip B. Corbett, the Times “standards editor,” who admitted that “there’s no simple, unwavering formula we can apply in situations like this.”
I don’t think these situations — the Milwaukee artwork and the various Muhammad caricatures — are really equivalent. For one thing, many people might disagree, but museum officials clearly consider this Johnson piece to be a significant artwork. Also, there’s no indication that the primary intent of the portrait is to offend or blaspheme (the artist and the museum both say that it is not intended to offend people but to raise a social question about the fight against AIDS). And finally, the very different reactions bear this out. Hundreds of thousands of people protested worldwide, for instance, after the Danish cartoons were published some years ago. While some people might genuinely dislike this Milwaukee work, there doesn’t seem to be any comparable level of outrage.
Corbett’s belief that the Benedict portrait is considered “significant artwork” and that the image is not intended to offend leads to the conclusion that the Charlie Hebdo works were the opposite. However, the Charlie Hebdo staff has explicitly stated the cartoons were not meant to be offensive — just to demonstrate the value of free expression.
But the real truth is that the public reaction to images is what determines how they are treated — by The Times anyway.
Basically, because of the massacre over the Mohammed cartoons, The New York Times decided not to publish the images. But, since there has been no “comparable level of outrage” over the Benedict image, there is no reason to withhold publishing.
In short, Muslims riot; Catholics don’t.
If an American politician — an American Republican politician made a statement like that, The Times would be outraged.
A very strange standard, indeed.
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