Journalistic Firebombs in the Middle East: Is it our job to inflame or inform?


(Sept. 27, 2012) The pen is mightier than the sword, but it is also far more lethal when manipulated irresponsibly.

Consider Charb. There is a ridiculous photo circulating on the web showing the editor of Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), the French satirical magazine. He goes by the name Charb, and in one hand he holds a copy of this week’s issue, containing lewd cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. His other hand is defiantly held aloft in a fist. “I’m not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he told The Associated Press.

He doesn’t need to; the weapon he controls can do far more damage. Charb may have set himself up as a free press crusader—he has been under police protection since his newspaper was firebombed last year, after publishing another issue offensive to Muslims—but it seems to me he is little more than an opportunistic agent provocateur. What he has published is not journalism. It is agitprop.

This has been a bad couple of weeks for freedom of the speech. First, an Islamaphobic Egyptian Coptic felon in California sets off a conflagration across the Muslim world with his third-rate propaganda film, readily seized on by Islamist hardliners to fuel their agenda. In its wake comes Newsweek’s inflammatory “Muslim Rage” cover, featuring what many critics saw as an offensive, sensational, and stereotyped image of screaming turban-clad Muslims. This was followed by news that a group dedicated to fighting “Islamic supremacism” has bought ads in the New York City subway, which refer to “the war between civilized man and the savage.” And now Charlie Hebdo and its tasteless Muhammad cartoons, showing the Prophet asking if we like his bare butt.

They differ by degree, mission, and level of sophistication, but all four are essentially firebombs designed to goad a response, including those lit by the professional journalists at Charlie Hebdo and Newsweek.

Let’s be clear. I am the dean of a journalism school that bears the name of the patron saint of the American news media, Edward R. Murrow. I have been a reporter for four decades. A commitment to press freedom is in my blood.

I have also seen the handiwork of Islamist extremists up close and personal. I reported on the first radical Islamist suicide attacks. I saw bits of US Marines hanging from trees after their Beirut headquarters was obliterated by a truck bomb. I have known journalists who were kidnapped and diplomats who were murdered, and I have covered more acts of terrorism in more countries than I can count.That shapes how I view the Islamist fringe.

Nothing justifies the fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie. Nothing justifies the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Artists, writers, and anyone with an Internet connection have the right to criticize Islam or any other religion, no matter how inflammatory their opinions.

But journalism is not supposed to be a firebomb. The goal is to inform, not inflame; to understand, not distort. Isn’t that what separates it from propaganda?

Back in 2006, after the frenzy over publication of the first set of Muhammad cartoons, many Muslim journalists simply couldn’t understand why Western news organizations would republish the offensive images just because they had the legal right to do so.

“When I insult your religion or your feelings, it is crossing the limits of freedom of expression,” Salama Ahmed Salama, the respected Egyptian columnist, told me at the time. It is a sentiment widely shared among his colleagues. In surveys I have conducted among journalists across the Muslim world, aspirations toward objectivity are always tempered by a sense that they must “balance the need to inform with the need to show respect.”

It’s likely the same reason most Western news organizations haven’t republished the topless Kate Middleton pix. Or why most US newspapers do not show dead soldiers. Or why, as I write this, I have told the head of my college’s NPR network that we will not publish the name of an underage rape victim, even though state law gives us the legal right. Such restraint does not damage our journalism.

“There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference,” Edward R. Murrow said back in 1958. “This weapon of television could be useful.” The words apply equally to today’s networked and instant-news world.

At the height of the Cairo riots last week, the US Embassy controversially tweeted:  “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.”

Bravo. Just because bigots have the right to publish offensive material doesn’t mean I must defend them any more than I would defend the news organizations that recently published the name of the Navy Seal who shot bin Laden.

Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish the cartoons (just as Newsweek has the right to its inflammatory cover). But, as Laurent Wauquiez,  the former French minister once asked, “Is it necessary to do this week? I do not think so.”

Back when I was a young reporter, I owned a belt buckle with a Superman-style logo that read: “Newsman: Truth, Justice, and the American way.” None of those ideals are served by throwing journalistic firebombs in the name of freedom of the press.

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