Drawing Fire

You may have forgotten about it for a few beer and pizza filled hours yesterday, but this cartoon kerfuffle ain't going away anytime soon. (In case you've been busy checking betting lines: Many Muslims are up in arms over cartoons originally printed in a Danish newspaper featuring Prophet Muhammad. Islamic tradition forbids even respectful depictions of the prophet, which these were most definitely not.)

The latest news includes reports about thousands of "rampaging" Muslims setting fire to the Danish mission in Beirut, four deaths in demonstrations in Afghanistan, protesters calling for the killing of anyone who insults Muhammad in Iraq, shops, businesses and schools shutting down in protest in Kashmir, and…well, the list goes on and on.

The issue now being debated is whether or not news outlets should show the cartoons in their stories on the controversy. Virtually all American newspapers have chosen not to, although the Philadelphia Inquirer did publish one of the cartoons on Saturday, with a note explaining the reason for doing so.

"We're running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy's about, not to titillate, and we have done that with a whole wide range of images throughout our history," Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett told the Associated Press. She added that "there's a news reason to run it."

At CBS News, the decision was made not to run the cartoons. "We could explain it, so we didn't need to show it," says Linda Mason, CBS News senior vice president, standards and special projects, who compares the decision to one not to show dead soldiers. "Any rendering of Muhammad is an insult to Muslims, and desecration is even worse," she says, adding that the decision was made out of a desire not to unnecessarily offend, not because of the demonstrations or "out of fear of retribution."

On CBSNews.com, a photo appeared featuring a man holding a newspaper that contained an image of the cartoon. Mike Sims, director of news and operations at CBSNews.com, quickly ordered it taken off the site. "You could not read the cartoon, but I even thought [what was there] was too much," he says. "I think we've proven we can tell the story without offending Muslims."

If you believe there's a "news reason" to run the cartoons, as Bennett says, you're in a tough position: You can't report the full story without showing the pictures, and you can't show the pictures without offending (and possibly inflaming) Muslims. A related issue: These cartoons aren't exactly hard to find if you want to see them, thanks to the Internet. Is that a reason to run them – or not to?