NEW YORK -– The New York Times led Wednesday’s paper with a report on the controversy over the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper whose office was attacked last week by Islamic extremists and that has since become a worldwide symbol of free expression.
The Times’ website prominently featured a related article about Parisians flocking to newsstands to buy the paper, which is known for skewering politicians and religions and previously had a small circulation but is now in high demand.
The only thing missing from the Times’ thorough coverage of the new issue of Charlie Hebdo was the new issue of Charlie Hebdo.
The Times chose not to publish Charlie Hebdo's latest cover, which features an illustration of the Prophet Muhammad shedding a tear and holding the now iconic “Je Suis Charlie” sign. The headline reads: “All is forgiven.”
It also decided last week not to run some of the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons that circulated widely after the Jan. 7 shooting, which left 12 dead and touched off a string of deadly events in the Paris area. The Times published several of the cartoons, including one of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but did not reprint those depicting Muhammad.
“Out of respect to our readers we have avoided those we felt were offensive,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told The Huffington Post on Monday night, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo cover was released online.
“Many Muslims consider publishing images of their prophet innately offensive and we have refrained from doing so,” Baquet said.
In the aftermath of the attack, major news sites, including The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and The Daily Beast, published some of the cartoons in question. Journalists around the world argued that beyond their sheer news value, the cartoons merited publication as a show of support for free expression.
The Times didn't budge amid calls for solidarity and was joined in its decision last week by The Associated Press, most television news divisions and several major newspapers.
But nearly all top U.S. newspaper editors reached a different decision on the matter of publishing the latest cover. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post all published it in recent days.
The Guardian, a British newspaper with a global presence online, also ran the cover, saying its news value warranted publication. The Times has partnered with the Guardian on major stories in the past.
When The Huffington Post asked Baquet Wednesday about the fact that other papers had chosen to run the cover, he replied by email: "We have to make our own calls."
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan disagreed with Baquet's decision, arguing Wednesday that the paper should have published the cover. “The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive," she wrote. "And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value."
The Times has certainly shown it considers the cover newsworthy. Its website ran the headline “Mohammed Is on Cover of Charlie Hebdo” across the middle of its homepage on Monday, linking to a story on the making of the first issue after the attack.
A day after the shooting, Baquet argued that publishing the cartoons could endanger Times staff abroad and that readers, especially Muslims, might be offended by them. He also cited a “long held” standard of not publishing what may be considered a “gratuitous insult”
But that “long held” standard quickly began to look more like a double standard as Twitter users surfaced several examples of the Times having published cartoons and artwork that could be considered offensive to various faiths. Gawker noted several of them.
In recent years, The Times published artwork from both a “Holocaust International Cartoon Contest" in Tehran and a “Holocaust-denying Iranian cartoonist," and a photograph from a production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” that included depictions of Buddha and Muhammad being decapitated.
The paper has also published controversial works like Andres Serrano's “Piss Christ,” which shows a crucifix submerged in urine, and Chris Ofili's “Holy Virgin Mary,” which uses materials like elephant dung and a features a collage of pornographic scenes, each of which sparked controversies in New York City. In 1999, the Times editorial board -– which operates separately from the news pages -- argued in support of Ofili’s work being exhibited in Brooklyn.
When asked by Politico’s Dylan Byers about some of the aforementioned examples, Baquet said he has a responsibility to “the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet.”
Baquet, who became executive editor in May 2014, also pointed out to Byers he wasn’t running the paper when the examples in question were published. The Huffington Post reached out to Baquet’s three predecessors, two of whom -- Howell Raines and Jill Abramson -- declined to comment on The Times' decision not to run the Charlie Hebdo cover.
Bill Keller, the Times’ top editor from 2003 to 2011, said in an email to The Huffington Post that he would have likely chosen to publish the cover. But he noted that there were reasons not to publish it as well, and he did not criticize Baquet's decision.
“The new cover is a closer call, and I can see why outlets that did not publish the earlier cartoons decided to publish this one,” Keller said. “It's poignant rather than insulting. Its news value -- as a statement of resilience after an atrocity -- is greater. It would be offensive to Muslims who believe that all pictorial representations of Mohammed are inherently sacrilegious, but that is by no means a universal view in Islam. I'd be inclined to publish it. But I respect the paper's decision not to.”
Keller was executive editor in February 2006 when the Times decided not to publish a series of Danish cartoons of Muhammad that were sparking protests. He compared the two situations in an email:
The arguments for publishing are a) it's news and b) it's a show of solidarity in the cause of press freedom. The main argument against is that it is deliberately, deeply offensive to a significant set of readers -- that, in fact, is its whole point. What we tried to do in 2006 was to serve the needs of news, by making clear what the cartoons portrayed; to register our devotion to press freedom, by reporting the free world's outrage and by editorializing on the opinion pages; but not to turn the NYT into a vehicle for insult and ridicule.
The current editors seem to have arrived at the same solution. Freedom of the press encompasses both the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish puerile, sometimes obscene, intentionally hurtful lampoons of Moslems, Jews, Catholics and politicians of all stripes, and the right of the NYT not to. And it encompasses the right of editors at other news organizations to make a different decision. If I ran a news organization that trafficked in sensation, or shared Charlie Hebdo's anarchic sensibility, I'd have published the cartoons on Day One.
One other consideration. An editor running a large, high profile, global news organization has to consider the potential consequences for reporters, photographers, translators and other staff. It's easy for an editor in New York or Washington to take a stand (or strike a pose) but the dangers fall on journalists in the field. If you've had a few of your people murdered, as The Times has, this is not a concern you take lightly.
Keller wasn’t alone when it came to the Danish cartoons: though several European publications, including Charlie Hebdo, reprinted them, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times did not. The Times' editorial board came out in support of Keller's decision.
Matt Welch, the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine who in 2006 was an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, recently recalled how he and some others, like columnist Tim Rutten, objected at the time to their paper’s decision.
In a blistering February 2006 column, Rutten wrote that "American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency."
The columnist also noted that “the editor of the Los Angeles Times does not think you need to see any of the cartoons that have triggered deadly riots across the Muslim world." He did not name the editor who made the call. It was Dean Baquet.
CORRECTION: This article was corrected to note that Andres Serrano took the photo "Piss Christ," and to clarify the relationship between The New York Times' editorial board and the paper's news pages.