At one point this week, a quick scan of the headlines on any major news Web site turned up the following developments:
1) All over the Muslim world, angry and violent protesters were still in the streets denouncing a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad; 2) Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, "We are now facing a growing global crisis" and called for "calm and steadiness"; 3) President Bush telephoned Rasmussen to offer "solidarity and support."
On the media front, most major American newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, stood by their decisions not to republish the cartoons. But a handful of papers did run at least one of the images. The Philadelphia Inquirer went with the now-famous caricature of Muhammad with a lit bomb in his turban. The paper's editor said she did so because the cartoons were newsworthy and readers needed to learn about them in context.
Practically speaking, the journalistic debate was a little absurd. As the above events unfolded, it was easy to find the offending cartoons, originally published last September, on any number of Web sites. I got them through a link offered at the online home of The Economist magazine, not exactly a shady underground operation.
But there's a moral dimension to these questions, too. Even in a world of ubiquitous information, to publish or not to publish, as a certain Dane might have said, is a question that still matters—not just for how you answer it, but for how you explain your answer. As the media universe explodes into a zillion atomistic units, and as news loses its exclusivity, one of the only ways left for an outlet to distinguish itself is to take a stand on the controversial content of the hour: We are running this (or not) because we believe x, y, and z. And that's exactly what a lot of old-fashioned American news outlets did, with great seriousness and cogency.
As I read the various explanations, I was struck by how sensible most of them were—on both sides. Among those who didn't publish the cartoon, The Boston Globe offered one of the strongest retorts to those who argued that it was cowardly to withhold the images. "Newspapers," it said in an editorial, "ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Muhammad in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance."
Yet when I saw The Austin-American Statesman's rationale for publishing the turban-bomb image, I was, frankly, just as impressed. That paper put the cartoon inside, with a front-page note informing readers where to go to "see an example of a drawing that offended Muslims and find out why it has."
"I think it's a close call," the Statesman's editor, Rich Oppel, told the trade publication Editor & Publisher. "There is good reason for sensitivity about a cartoon.... We didn't put it out on the front page, and it was a way of responding to reader interest without rubbing it in the nose of people who take offense."
Between and beyond those two thoughtful takes, there were countless other slants. There were bloggers on both left and right who felt that the Danish paper should be lionized and the cartoons published far and wide. "SUPPORT DENMARK: WHY THE FORBIDDEN CARTOONS MATTER," said the headline on the popular conservative blog MichelleMalkin.com, which praised the Philly paper for "braving the forces of political correctness."
But another conservative blogger, Hugh Hewitt, urged his readers to "begin with the obvious: Some of the cartoons were offensive," while making this important distinction: "Defending the right to publish offensive material ... shouldn't mean having to defend the content published. And it certainly doesn't mean having to reproduce the material."
In the end, it was the pluralism of the American media's response to the cartoon crisis—its intelligent complexity—that spoke loudest. The range and thoughtfulness of opinion was an object lesson in what liberal democracy is all about.
Say what you will about those woeful Western journalists, when the chips are down they don't behave like the Islamist crowds we now know were incited by cynical leaders. The beauty of free media is they don't fall into line.