US media stir controversy by avoiding it

Last Monday, the day after the Super Bowl, the two most requested searches on the Technorati blog search engine were not "Steelers" and "Seahawks." Instead, they were "Jyllands-Posten Mohammed" and "Muslim cartoon."

Last Monday, the day after the Super Bowl, the two most requested searches on the Technorati blog search engine were not "Steelers" and "Seahawks." Instead, they were "Jyllands-Posten Mohammed" and "Muslim cartoon."

The worldwide audience was hungry to see for itself the controversial cartoons that Danish and Norwegian newspapers ran, sparking fiery protests and outrage throughout the Muslim world. And there was a good reason that many were turning to blogs: With a few exceptions, American media outlets refused to reprint the cartoons, even when the public's curiosity was piqued as to what could have possibly offended people enough to burn embassies and issue widespread death threats.

European media had no such qualms. After the beginning rumbles of violent protests, newspapers throughout the continent reprinted the cartoons in a show of solidarity and as a way to assert their belief in the freedom of the press. That move certainly made a point, but also helped give the controversy legs and spread the outrage even further.

Why the difference? Is the US media prudent, levelheaded, and respectful or timid, weak-willed, and unable to handle controversy?

Well, certainly no one has ever accused the US media of being prudent. Or respectful, for that matter. Most newspaper editors and television news executives described the decision as a balancing act, in which the news value of the cartoons was pitted against an imaginary mandate not to offend any portion of their audience.

Muslims, Christians, Jews, and every other organized religion have rules forbidding certain activities that would seem utterly innocuous to someone who does not subscribe to that particular religion's set of beliefs. But the refusal of news outlets - even the one that promises "All the News That's Fit to Print"- to show readers just what the ruckus is about smacks of a policy of avoiding what could be the most heated controversy in the world today, rather than a principled stand to advance the boundaries of respect.

It also highlights the speed at which mainstream media outlets are working to push themselves into irrelevance. The images of the cartoons are only a few keystrokes away from anyone who wants them, and when the blog world is able to get what amounts to an exclusive on the hottest story of the day, newspapers and TV stations find themselves virtually waving signs that say "Forget about us!"

"The suspicion and the distance that [the US] uses to its detriment with respect to the Arab and Muslim world actually in this [case] helped because they did not get too wrapped up into the controversy," says Mike Holtzman, a partner at Brown Lloyd James, which represents Al-Jazeera's English-language channel and several Middle Eastern government clients. "A lot of the media here are trying desperately to prove that they do understand the Muslim world, and in that desperation, they have not really waded into this thicket."

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says, "The American media seem to be more secure in their right to freedom of the press and don't feel the urge to engage in a childish exercise... as the European media seem to." CAIR is using the controversy as a chance to stand up for nonviolence and to spark educational programs targeting the public at large in conjunction with mosques throughout America. As for the media itself, Hooper says, "Mainstream media professionals seem to understand the Muslim community."

Public affairs professionals throughout the world may be able to derive some good from this mess if they can use it as a springboard to greater understanding of Islam in the West and a greater appreciation for free speech in the Middle East. In the meantime, the US media should take care not to mistake themselves for the US State Department.

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