Crisis Management: Intellectual Violence in the Press: Crisis prevention
When Muslim UNC graduate Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar intentionally plowed his SUV into nine students at Chapel Hill in 2006 – not seriously injuring anyone – he told campus police and the 911 operator his attack was to “avenge the deaths or murders of Muslims around the world” and “to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.”
There was not a link with a campus newspaper cartoon parodying the Prophet Mohammad about the same time and an editorial criticizing Arabs although those items did anger Muslim students. Even if there had been a link, it certainly would not justify trying to murder innocents.
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, what if there had been a cartoon connection? What if Taheri-azar tried to kill those students (he’s charged with attempted murder) specifically in response to the Mohammad drawing? Suddenly the violent protests that followed the publishing of similar cartoons in Europe would be at our front door.
Let’s continue my hypothetical. Assume you are the president of another university: an intended bastion of freedom of speech and press. You, as president, learn that Taheri-azar’s attack was a direct result of cartoons of the Prophet in the UNC campus newspaper. On your campus, your student editor wants to publish similar cartoons. Or, more seriously, your editor prints a cartoon of Mohammad without consulting you and infuriates Muslims. In response, they hold demonstrations. You hear of anonymous threats of violence. Aside from security precautions, how do you handle that? Do you apologize to the Muslim community and say that the cartoon is an act of press freedom and they must accept it? Do you apologize, condemn the cartoon and increase your oversight of the student newspaper? Do you apologize at all? And what if the cartoon has not yet been published? Do you permit it and cite press freedom? If you block it, what is your justification for muzzling student expression?
Let’s take my hypothetical to the extreme. You know of the UNC attack and its link (again, hypothetical) with a Mohammad cartoon, you allow your newspaper to run a similar cartoon, and violence breaks out. Students are hurt and parents outraged. It is time to look victims’ parents in the eye. What do you say to justify their injured children? Do you apologize but insist the risk was worth exercising freedom of the press?
When I was a journalist, I was an absolutist. It was press freedom or else. I took it personally whenever I perceived that someone was trying to stifle my work, and I especially resented the powerful who tried to pressure bosses into stopping hard-hitting stories. In the years since I left the Fourth Estate I regularly work with those on the receiving end of harsh and sometimes inaccurate reporting. I see their pain and feel it. Yet even if we complain to reporters, I still tell clients that our discomfort is the price of living amidst a free press.
But I believe there is a significant difference between reporters who get the story wrong while trying to get the “bad guys” and journalists publishing dangerously inflammatory political cartoons just because they have the right to do so.
Few American newspapers have printed the original Denmark cartoons. (You can find the drawings on the Internet.) In a Washington Post column Bill Bennett and Alan Dershowitz criticized the U.S. press for timidity by shying away from reprinting the offending representations of Mohammad. They said the press surrendered to radical Islamist intimidation.
I disagree. I don’t think journalists ought to intentionally incite, especially minority groups, by knowingly insulting religious beliefs. It’s unnecessary and uncivilized. That’s not a bold free press. That’s intellectual violence.