Situationally Charlie

Rampage changed media equation on offensive images

I was not a fan of Charlie Hebdo, the French satiric newspaper that skewers political hypocrisy and mocks people of faith. "In the toilet, all religions," read one cartoon of a roll of toilet paper inscribed with the words "Bible," "Torah," and "Quran."

Insulting a person's religious beliefs isn't my thing. As the leader of newsrooms at The Associated Press (2008-10) and National Journal (2010-12), I participated in multiple conversations about the newsworthiness of provocative words and images like those at Charlie Hebdo. I wrestled with the balance between the public's right to know and the media's responsibility not to recklessly insult or incite people.

Which is why I respect the decision made at the AP, The New York Times, and other media organizations not to publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons that mocked the prophet Mohammad—and that were used by Islamic extremists as justification for mass murder. Under a different set of circumstances, I might have even supported the cartoon blackout. Not now.

This situation calls for dissemination.

In the immediate aftermath of the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo headquarters, The New York Times described its decision this way: "Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities. After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today's story."

The operative word is "normally." For me, the equation shifted the moment two monsters burst into the Charlie Hebdo newsroom, shouted the names of offending editors and cartoonists, and executed them—before running into the street, where they murdered a wounded, defenseless police officer. On Friday, French elite forces stormed two hostage sites and killed three suspected terrorists. Four hostages also were killed.

While it may seem grimly routine, there is nothing "normal" about murder in the name of religious fanaticism.

Once these terrorists spilled blood, the cartoons took on new meaning for me. First, they're news. Big news. Homegrown terrorists, perhaps inspired by an American-born cleric, held one of the world's great cities hostage in retribution for ... what? Cartoons? People want to see the images, and they need to see them — if for no other reason than to understand the depraved minds behind Islamic extremism. What's more: In a post-Internet age, there are no gatekeepers; people are going to see and hear the worst that the globe has to offer. We in the media can't be trusted to provide our audiences sane and proper context if we don't trust our audiences with raw information.

My final point is my least civil. It comes with a dose of defiance: These animals think shedding blood is how you suppress insensitive images? Well, sorry, punks: You just magnified them. Click. Take that!

With no small amount of regret for offending many good people, I tweeted and retweeted the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. While I am no longer in a decision-making role for a newsroom, I can join the tens of millions of social media users—think of us as self-publishers—and distribute the offending images far and wide.

For me, there never was anything funny about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They're repugnant, vile, and irresponsible. But they're also news—and they cannot be suppressed at the point of a gun. Click.