Apologizing is the correct course of action

by The Beacon / Beacon Staff • March 15, 2006

staff, I feel compelled to write a public letter to my colleagues and to members of the Emerson community after the Feb. 28 forum hosted by the Society for Professional Journalists and the Center for Spiritual Life.

The objective was to discuss the publication of the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in place of a turban that ran in The Beacon in the Feb. 16 issue as an accompaniment to an opinion piece ("Mohammed cartoon creates controversy").

It is crucial for people to understand why these cartoons were originally published six months ago in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten.

Jyllands-Posten's Editor in Chief Carsten Juste and Cultural Editor Fleming Rose recently explained that the paper commissioned the cartoons from 40 Danish illustrators in the attempt to identify whether or not artists were self-censoring because of fear of reprisals by Islamists.

This concern, Rose said in Jyllands-Posten on Feb. 19, stemmed from six different cases in two weeks of what the paper saw as self-censorship in Denmark. He asked illustrators "to draw Mohammed as you see him" in an attempt to investigate if they would do so.

When only 12 responded, three of whom were staff cartoonists, Juste said in a Dec. 18, 2005 Jyllands-Posten article that he was faced with a "thin" response and was concerned the question of self-censorship had not been answered. The editors consulted journalists who covered Denmark's Muslim community's struggles with immigration and integration about running the images. The journalists advised not to run the 12 cartoons but the editors decided, after more investigation, that it was newsworthy enough to publish them on Sept. 30, 2005.

Juste has since apologized in a letter published Feb. 8 to the Muslim community for the unintentional offense the cartoons caused.

"In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize," Juste wrote.

I feel that The Beacon's decision was made without a full comprehension of the possible effects it would have on the Muslim community at Emerson and on the credibility of The Beacon. I also feel the argument that printing the image was relevant information to the opinion piece rings hollow-a link to a Web site with the cartoons, as I provided below, would have sufficed.

We should have trusted our readers to make their own decision.

However the crux of my concern is that a critical issue was glossed over and ignored at the forum in an almost frantic effort to defend and justify The Beacon's decision-making process.

When Helal Homaidan, the president of the Islamic Community at Emerson, told the crowd that the publishing of the cartoon was the second time in his life that he felt like a minority, the first being when he was attacked by fellow high school students after September 11th, no one responded to him.

I am deeply disturbed that his admission was so easily pushed aside by The Beacon panel members and the audience. Rabbi Al Axelrad, head of the Center for Spiritual Life, spoke very eloquently about the need for respect, not just tolerance in life. A "pluralistic respect," "sensitivity" and "empathy;" we humans should "painstakingly avoid hurting others."

For some reason, it seems there is a question about whether journalists should use these human qualities because they might interfere with journalistic principles.

At least, that is what I saw illustrated at the forum when no one except the Executive Director of the Center for Diversity William Smith acknowledged the fact that Homaidan and members of the Muslim community were deeply hurt by the caricature.

I believe it is crucial, not only as a journalist but as a human being, to be sensitive and have the ability to imagine what it is like to walk in the shoes of other people, especially those we write about.

After Homaidan said at the forum that he felt a division within the Emerson community because of The Beacon's decision, I couldn't help thinking that the last thing the world needs in this age of America's never-ending "War on Terror" and unilateral preemptive war is more divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims.

It is our job as journalists to do the best we can to minimize harm and in this instance, I do not think we did so if people at Emerson feel this way.

This issue is not about freedom of speech: This is about the fact that what The Beacon decided to print hurt people.

Yes, it takes courage to print and write something that goes against the grain, that is controversial and that challenges social constructs and authority.

However, I don't think that this situation falls into any of these criteria and I think in this circumstance it takes a lot more courage and strength of character to know when to say, "I am sorry I hurt you. I never meant to do so."

If Jyllands-Posten can apologize, then The Beacon should be able to as well.

The original cartoons, some of which do not actually depict Mohammed can be seen at: blog.newspaperindex.com/2005/12/10/un-to-investigate-jyllands-posten-racism/

Miriam Clithero is a junior print journalism major and deputy lifestyle editor for The Beacon.