Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ottawa Citizen: Why we won't publish the cartoons

Scott Anderson, editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen on his decision not to publish:
Why we won't publish the cartoons

Scott Anderson, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Friday, February 17, 2006

The Western Standard is a plucky little magazine and a nice addition to the Canadian periodical landscape. Only Ken Whyte's Maclean's comes close to it in its unabashed display of conservative views.

The Western Standard was the first publication in Canada to feature the insightful and hilarious Mark Steyn after he packed up his toys and stormed off the pages of the National Post. Other than the Ottawa Citizen, it's the only publication to regularly feature the conservative Christian views of David Warren, the kind of voice that is often shut out in this country. It prides itself on being independent and outspoken and, because it is just that, it's a refreshing foil to the mass of politically correct, government-subsidized journals that crowd our magazine racks.

And it was a big disappointment this week when it tried to pass off a circulation-boosting stunt as a strident defence of free speech when it published the now infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

I went on CBC radio the other day to debate the Western Standard's publisher, Ezra Levant, about his decision to publish the cartoons and our decision at the Citizen not to. It didn't go very well. Ezra's style is closer to shock radio than the CBC and, even though he was two time zones away, I could feel his hot breath on my neck. Ezra doesn't debate, he berates. And, for a little while, I was his punching bag. I was hoping for a civil debate but had to settle for the accusation that my paper has caved in to pressure from radical Muslims and "Jew haters."

Boiled down, Ezra's essential point is that most media in North America refuse to publish the cartoons out of fear of a backlash from radical Muslims. Ezra told me there is nothing wrong with fear but he is righteously angry because I refuse to admit that it is simply fear that prevents us from publishing the cartoons. Fear is indeed a powerful motivator and I admit that as a journalist I have had fearful moments (mostly during encounters with irate bosses). But that's not the reason behind our decision not to publish.

Not everything that happens in the world makes its way into the morning newspapers. Editors make decisions based on relevance or newsworthiness, taste, community and journalistic standards, graphic detail, perceived public interest and, yes, public reaction.

The videotaped beheading of a Western hostage in Iraq, to give one example, is newsworthy and interesting. But we don't publish pictures of beheadings because we consider them too graphic. Instead, we describe the act with words. Similarly, we try to avoid showing corpses, gratuitous nudity and foul language. Each story, column, photograph and cartoon is reviewed.

Ezra is right to say that the Muhammad cartoons are newsworthy and interesting. They are also considered very offensive by a large number of people. Editors don't normally shy away from offending some readers, but they generally try not to do it gratuitously. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons, we felt publication would be just that: gratuitous. You can argue that we made the wrong decision -- some of our own columnists have -- but to attribute it to cowardice is simply wrong and reflects Ezra's bellicose approach to anyone who disagrees with him.

Ezra says that newspapers are being intimidated by radical Muslim groups. That's his view and nobody is likely to change his mind. But it's odd to fight perceived intimidation with the tactics of a bully. If the Western Standard had quietly published the Muhammad cartoons, I would have admired the act. It would, I believe, still be the wrong decision, but I could have accepted it as a decision based on principle. Too bad that the publisher chose to turn it into a publicity stunt. As one wise reader has pointed out, it has become nothing more than "a journalistic mooning of the public."

Ezra Levant has gone on a chest-thumping rampage through the ranks of North American journalism, maligning the principled decisions taken by thousands of editors. He is trying to shame and bully others into adopting his view. That, too, is intimidation and we won't give in to it.

My friend Philip Lee, a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, sums up, very well, the view I hold: "Freedom of the press means you can publish, or not. Not publishing is also an expression of freedom, which is difficult it seems for some to grasp."

Scott Anderson is editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen.


Annamarie said...

Scott Anderson put it very well. I also like the quote by
Philip Lee, a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick: "Freedom of the press means you can publish, or not. Not publishing is also an expression of freedom, which is difficult it seems for some to grasp."

Well said!

Thanks for posting it.

Annamarie Deneen

P. M. Jaworski said...

This is a nice little post about the decision not to publish. However, Ezra didn't generate his own publicity. There was no press release saying that they will publish the cartoons. When the media got wind of it, they called Ezra, not vice versa. So he's wrong to say that it was Ezra generating the news. He was only answering reporters questions.

Anderson should have given the publication that respect. He just confused the effect with the cause. Just because something generates publicity, does not mean that the thing talked about caused it.