Cartoon discussed at forum

by Beacon Staff • March 1, 2006

and saw the image that accompanied it.,Editor's Note: Beacon correspondent Paddy Shea had no previous contact with the editors quoted in this piece. Editor in Chief Cyra Master and Managing Editors Nathan Hurst and Aubrey Gibavic did not see this piece prior to publication.

The first time Helal Homaidan, president of the Islamic Community at Emerson, viewed any of the controversial Prophet Mohammed cartoons was when he read Patrick Boyle's Feb. 16 opinion article in The Berkeley Beacon and saw the image that accompanied it.

"This was the second time in my life that I felt like a minority; the first time was after September 11th when I was attacked by members of my high school," he said at Tuesday night's Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Forum in the Semel Theatre.

The forum, entitled "Publishing the Danish Cartoons: Freedom of the Press or Cultural Offense?" brought student panelists like Homaidan, professional respondents and the Emerson community together to discuss The Beacon's decision to run the cartoon, which depicted Mohammed with a bomb as his turban.

The discussion drew 111 students and faculty, according to SPJ president Courtney Gross, a senior organizational and political communication and print journalism double major.

A series of cartoons showing the prophet was first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September, and has sparked protest, and at times violence, throughout Europe and the Middle East. The depictions have enraged Muslims around the world, as it is considered sacrilegious to create any representation of the prophet.

In his opinion piece, Boyle, a sophomore organizational and political communication major, criticized American newspapers for refusing to print the cartoon images of Mohammed. On Tuesday, students and panelists challenged Boyle's contention, as well as the decision of Beacon Editor in Chief Cyra Master and Beacon management to run the cartoon.

"It was not an easy decision or one that we took lightly," Master, a senior print journalism major, said at the forum.

Master said herself, Boyle, and The Beacon's managing editors made the decision after a lengthy discussion.

Lauren Johnson, a Beacon contributor and SPJ member who served on the panel, said she disagreed with the paper's decision to print the cartoon.

"I believe these images are derogatory and did more harm by furthering the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims at Emerson," said Johnson, a junior print journalism major.

Writing, Literature and Publishing Professor Jeffrey Seglin, who is also a former ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists and journalism educators, used his allotted time to question The Beacon's ethics in running the image.

Master responded by saying that she felt obligated to run the cartoons. "My job as a journalist is to find all the relevant information," she said. "I felt it added to [Boyle's] piece."

When Seglin proposed that The Beacon could have provided the Internet address of a Web site with all twelve of the Danish cartoons and given the readers even more information, Master responded that she felt that many readers might not have followed through and looked at the site.

Seglin's response drew the first round of applause from the crowd.

"You didn't respect your readers," he said. "You're all like-minded and you never pushed to gain perspective from other people."

While some panelists and audience members focused on journalistic principles, many discussed what some perceived to be The Beacon's insensitivity to the Muslim community.

Panelist Rabbi Al Axelrad, head of the Center for Spiritual Life, and Hossam Al Jabri, the president of the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society both discussed the impact the cartoon had on the Muslim community.

Axelrad was concerned with the "warring principles" of the issue, the right to free speech and the ethical principles involved.

The Beacon "without question" had the right to print the cartoons, Axelrad said, but he believed they violated the "principle of pluralistic respect" and that it was "not the most mature of decisions."

Master and Boyle remained confident in their decision to publish potentially offensive material.

"We do understand that the cartoon is offensive," Master said in response to the accusations of insensitivity. "If we self-censor because we're afraid of offending a certain group or person, I think that sets a dangerous precedent."

Master said at the forum that if faced again with the same decision, she would still run the cartoon.

The Beacon found support in the audience from Beacon Managing Editor Nathan Hurst, and Michael Corcoran, an SPJ officer and last semester's assistant opinion editor for The Beacon.

Corcoran, a senior print journalism major, criticized SPJ for "stacking" the panel with respondents who were religious and opposed to The Beacon's decision. Hurst, a junior print journalism major, was adamant that printing the cartoon served the greater good.

"Sometimes you just cannot be sensitive to everyone," Hurst said. "None of us would be here in this room if the cartoon wasn't printed."

Executive Director of the Center for Diversity William Smith said he found fault with what he considered to be this lack of sensitivity.

"The thing that concerns me is that it's been said that if the cartoon had not been printed we wouldn't be here tonight," he said. "I'd rather not be here. I feel uncomfortable. There's an element of humanity missing here."

While Axelrad, Smith and several other audience members called for The Beacon to apologize for offending its readers, Boyle and Master did not offer such an apology.

"[The forum] has definitely given me pause," Master said after the forum. "It made me more aware of how the students and faculty view us and view The Beacon."