Sometimes, It Takes A Cartoon

The New York Times wouldn't do it. Neither would CBS News, USA Today , The Washington Post, ABC News, NBC News, The Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, etc., etc., etc. None of these giants of journalism, guardians of the public trust and protectors of the First Amendment felt it necessary to actually show the public the series of Danish cartoons that caused waves of violent protests all over the world. The protests -- with burning U.S. and Danish flags, anti-American placards and buildings ablaze -- those they could show. But the actual images causing such outrage? No, those were much too controversial.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Sun, and a handful of smaller-market and college papers dared to run at least some of the images which so offend Muslims. What was so wrong? Drawings of the prophet Muhammad. It wasn't just the cartoon caricatures of Muhammad that infuriated an entire religion, we were told, but any kind of image of the prophet at all. So, the media did what they would have us believe they always do in cases of offensive material, they responsibly censored it.

These days it takes a cartoon of a different kind to stand up for the First Amendment rights that news organizations once proudly protected. In two-part series that wrapped up last night, Comedy Central's "South Park" spoke truth to the irrational and irresponsible reaction to this cartoon controversy in the U.S. in general and among the media in particular.

The "South Park" cartoons are being widely discussed in the blogosphere and there are so many levels on which to look at them, the broader conversation is best left there. Suffice it to say three main points come across loud and clear. The first is sense of fear that somehow we're all in danger if these cartoons are shown. In South Park, authorities bury everybody's heads in sand in response to a threat that a likeness of Muhammad will be shown on "Family Guy" (a real cartoon in a cartoon about cartoons, I know, you have to watch the show).

The second point exposes the double standard used by the press as an excuse not to show the images. We've been told time and again that showing these images of Muhammad would offend all Muslims and, anyway, the story can be told without them. Well a whole lot of folks feel their religion is under attack by the media on pretty much a regular basis, but that doesn't seem to be much of a concern. "South Park" deals with it in an in-your-face way by claiming that Comedy Central refused to show a promised image of Muhammad yet they allowed a scene of debauchery in which Jesus defecates on President Bush and the American flag. [It now appears that the creators planned on showing the actual image but Comedy Central would not allow it, sort of reality intruding to make the point even more poignant.]

But the most important point made may well be the seeming abandonment of the First Amendment by the press when things get a little hairy. Freedom of speech is great for them, unless speaking freely might get a Molotov cocktail thrown your way. "South Park" gets to this point in a press conference where the president explains he cannot stop "Family Guy" from showing the Muhammad image because of something called "The First Amendment." Here are the questions "South Park's" fearless press throw at the president:

  • And what exactly is this "First Amendment" Mr. President?
  • Mr. President, when your administration came up with this "First Amendment," did it not foresee a problem like this might happen?
  • What do you intend to do about this "First Amendment?"
  • Forgive me Mr. President, but this "First Amendment" sounds like a lot of bureaucratic jibbery-joo.

    That pretty much says it all. It's enough to make one wonder if the real First Amendment wouldn't be better served if manatees ran the press.