New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has repeatedly claimed that the reason he’s not allowing any depictions of Muhammad to appear in the paper is because he’s highly attuned to religious sensibilities. It’s not because he’s terrified of Islamic radicals killing him or his staff.
No really. That’s what he’s going with.
And to believe this, you have to not be in any way a religious Jew or Christian who has read the paper in recent years. For us, the insensitivity toward our religious views is more a daily and expected occurrence.
Still, I found yesterday’s paper to be interesting for how quickly it exposed Baquet’s newfound religious sensibilities to be a sham. There, on page four, was a story by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren. The story was about that ultra-Orthodox newspaper that removed women from its picture of the Paris unity rally following the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher grocery store massacres. (I learned all this from The Gist podcast “It Insults Lutherans.”)
Now, if you don’t know anything about ultra-Orthodox, this is completely standard for them. They are quite particular about how the sexes interact with each other. Ultra-orthodox Jews do not show pictures of women. The men do not touch the women. The men and women won’t even talk to each other if they’re alone in a room or celebrating weddings or bar mitzvahs with each other. And they don’t really even pretend to cover the news fairly.
Also, another fun fact about them is that however bizarre and illiberal their beliefs, Dean Baquet is in roughly zero danger of them blowing up the Jerusalem bureau of the New York Times.
OK, so one might quibble about why this newspaper story was such big news, particularly in a media environment where everybody was censoring Muhammad out of photo coverage of the massacre. One might find it particularly interesting that the New York Times devoted so many resources (two other reporters helped get the full 11-paragraph story) to this thing, given that the paper itself won’t show readers super news-worthy images out of religious sensibilities. Check out the tone-deaf lede:
JERUSALEM — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was right there next to the president of France on Sunday, marching through the streets of Paris for all the world to see — all the world, that is, except the readers of an ultra-Orthodox newspaper in Israel.
That’s crazy! That reminds me of how Muhammad was right there on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, an offense that led to dozens of people being brutally murdered in the streets of Paris! And that all the world saw the images — that is, except for the readers of the ultra-scared newspaper in New York City. That’s so weird! Hunh!
We haven’t even gotten to the reason why I’m mentioning all this — which is that the story by Jodi Rudoren has two pictures accompanying it. And you will never ever ever believe what they are. One is the picture that ran in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper, sans ladies. The other … is the actual image they found so offensive they were willing to airbrush the women out of it.
Isn’t that interesting. I mean, we know these ultra-Orthodox Jews find it needlessly offensive to have men and women marching side by side, much less photographing this scandalous behavior. They’re quite clear about that. But for some reason Dean Baquet had no problem whatsoever running that super-offensive image. I wonder what the difference is. It can’t be that he thinks ultra-Orthodox Jews aren’t religious. Or that they’re not offended by the picture. What’s the difference I wonder?
Don’t get me wrong. Dean Baquet certainly did the right thing by running this picture that so offends ultra-Orthodox Jews. He’s a journalist. And his job is to put out a paper that’s truthful, however much he misses the mark. And certainly in order to understand this little story that led to no deaths, a picture is most helpful, however horribly offensive it is to these people who won’t let men and women walk together. The problem, then, is his cowardice in retaining these principles when he’s covering people who threaten violence against journalists.
Margaret Sullivan had an interesting couple of paragraphs in her piece about this self-inflicted censorship of Muhammad images. She wrote:
Mr. Baquet made a tough call, which included safety concerns for Times staff, especially those in international posts. (Those concerns are far from frivolous; just days ago, a German newspaper’s office was firebombed after it published the cartoons following the attack, and now new concerns have arisen about reprisals.) I certainly don’t think that decision was “cowardly,” as many have charged.
Here’s the thing. Sullivan doesn’t give any explanation for why she doesn’t view Baquet as cowardly except that he’s legitimately worried about safety. But courage assumes “safety concerns” to use her phrase. That they are legitimate safety concerns on account of how murderous some Islamic radicals are doesn’t change the question of whether Baquet was courageous or cowardly to be bullied into not journalism-ing by threats of violence.
Let’s hear from Confucius: “To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage.” How about Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe or politic, nor popular but take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.” Preach, Dr. King!
It would be one thing entirely if Baquet had told readers, “Listen, there is no way I think freedom of the press in the face of violent threats is as important as the safety of my staff and I. They got us right where they want us and we’re relenting.” Even the editor of Jyllands-Posten — the first newspaper to feel the wrath of Islamic radicals — said he wasn’t republishing the cartoons right now out of safety concerns. Then he said that militant Islamists control newsroom decisions.
Not every job I’ve held has been important enough to stand up against bullies for. But our most basic freedoms? That’s important. And if major media figures want to make claim of being such a vital part of a free society, they need to stand up even in the face of safety concerns. That’s the dividing line between courage and cowardice.
Printing pictures that generally conservative Americans of varying religious persuasions find distasteful (which happens all. the. time. in the Times) isn’t courageous. Printing pictures that ultra-Orthodox Jews find offensive isn’t courageous. Printing pictures that radical Islamists will kill you for is courageous. And not printing them — when they have such newsworthiness — is cowardly. If the New York Times wants to hold up the ultra-Orthodox journalists for ridicule, that’s fine. I kind of held Jodi Rudoren up for ridicule a few weeks ago for not knowing what celery was.
But if we avoid telling very important stories or telling them well because we’re scared, that’s exactly the definition of cowardice and Sullivan was wrong to excuse Baquet from this moral failing.