THE PHOENIX is Boston's leading "alternative" newspaper, the kind of brash, pull-no-punches weekly that might have been expected to print without hesitation the Mohammed cartoons that Islamists have been using to incite rage and riots across the Muslim world. Its willingness to push the envelope was memorably demonstrated in 2002, when it broke with most media to publish a grisly photograph of Daniel Pearl's severed head, and supplied a link on its website to the sickening video of the Wall Street Journal reporter's beheading. (The Phoenix was widely criticized, though not by me. I defended its actions in a column that concluded: "This is no time to be covering our eyes.")
But the Phoenix isn't publishing the Mohammed drawings, and on February 10, in a brutally candid editorial, it explained why.
"Our primary reason," the editors confessed, is "fear of retaliation from . . . bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. . . . Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and . . . could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year-publishing history."
The vast majority of US media outlets have shied away from reproducing the drawings, but to my knowledge only the Phoenix has been honest enough to admit that it is capitulating to fear. Many of the others have published high-minded editorials and columns about the importance of "restraint" and "sensitivity" and not giving "offense" to Muslims. Several have claimed they wouldn't print the Danish cartoons for the same reason they wouldn't print overtly racist or anti-Semitic material. The managing editor for news of The Oregonian, for example, told her paper's ombudsman that not running the images is like avoiding the N-word -- readers don't need to see a racial slur spelled out to understand its impact. Yet a Nexis search turns up at least 14 occasions since 1999 when The Oregonian has published the N-word unfiltered. So apparently there are times when it is appropriate to run material that some may find offensive.
Rationalizations notwithstanding, the refusal of the US media to show the images at the heart of one of the most urgent stories of the day is not about restraint and good taste. It's about fear. Editors and publishers are afraid the thugs will target them as they targeted Danny Pearl and Theo van Gogh; afraid the mob will firebomb their newsrooms as it has firebombed Danish embassies. "We will not accept less than severing the heads of those responsible," an imam in Gaza preaches. "Whoever insults a prophet, kill him," reads the sign carried by a demonstrator in London. Those are not figures of speech but deadly threats, and American newspapers and networks are intimidated.
Not everyone has succumbed. The Weekly Standard reproduced the 12 cartoons, and some have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Sun, and even Spare Change News, a Boston biweekly sold by homeless people. But there has been nothing like the defiance shown in Europe, where some two dozen publications in 13 countries have run the cartoons, insisting that they will not allow thugs to decide what a free press can publish.
Journalists can be incredibly brave, but when it comes to covering the Arab and Muslim world, too many news organizations have knuckled under to threats. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, a veteran foreign correspondent, admitted long ago that "physical intimidation" by the PLO led reporters to skew their coverage of important stories or to ignore them "out of fear." Similarly, CNN's former news executive, Jordan Eason, acknowledged after the fall of Saddam Hussein that his network had long sanitized its news from Iraq, since reporting the unvarnished truth "would have jeopardized the lives of . . . our Baghdad staff."
Like the Nazis in the 1930s and the Soviet communists in the Cold War, the radical Islamists are emboldened by appeasement and submissiveness. Give the rampagers and book-burners a veto over artistic and editorial decisions, and you end up not with heightened sensitivity and cultural respect, but with more rampages and more books burned. You betray ideals that generations of Americans have died to defend.
And worse than that: You betray as well the dissidents and reformers within the Islamic world, the Muslim Sakharovs and Sharanskys and Havels who yearn for the free, tolerant, and democratic culture that we in the West take for granted. What they want to see from America is not appeasement and apologies and a dread of giving offense. They want to see us face down the fanatics, be unintimidated by bullies. They want to know that in the global struggle against Islamist extremism, we won't let them down.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
-- ## --