Charlie Hebdo’s moment: Why some media outlets are afraid to run the cover

In the television business, I like to say that people vote with their remote controls.

In Paris right now, people are voting with their francs.

They are buying up the new issue of Charlie Hebdo in such waves that many French newsstands sold out before 7 a.m. yesterday. The usual print run of 50,000 had been boosted to 3 million, and when that was quickly snatched up, it was upped to 5 million.

If there’s been another time in modern history when an entire country — and much of the civilized world — has come together in a passionate embrace of free expression, it doesn’t immediately come to mind.

I think the cover image — Muhammed shedding a tear, with the headline “All Is Forgiven”—is uplifting. And yet many American news organizations won’t run the cover, even as they report on the story.

The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, CBS and Fox News, among many others, have carried the cartoon. But CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and the New York Times are among those refusing to do so.

This is very different than last week’s debate on the refusal to publish the offensive anti-Islam cartoons from the satirical newspaper, which helped precipitate the deadly terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo’s office. Many critics called that decision cowardly. But news executives had to weigh the safety of their employees, as well as their usual practice of not running images that are gratuitously offensive to religion. (Yes, I know that some have run anti-Christian images in the past but seem to be more skittish about offending Muslims.)

The new cover, though, represents fresh news on a huge story, and is not offensive except perhaps to a small minority. It does not mock religion. That doesn’t mean that publishing it is without risk. A former British radical leader, Anjem Choudary, told the Independent that the new image was an “act of war,” one that would draw the death penalty in a Sharia court.

But it’s important that the world press not be intimidated, any more than the more than 1 million people who filled the streets of Paris on Sunday.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times public editor, disagrees with her paper’s decision:

“The new cover image of Charlie Hebdo is an important part of a story that has gripped the world’s attention over the past week.

“The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive. And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value.

“With Charlie Hebdo’s expanded press run of millions of copies for this post-attack edition, and a great deal of global coverage, the image is being seen, judged and commented on all over the world. Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find it.”

Columnist Joe Concha whacks the news outlets that have just said no:

“As for CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and NPR, please save your breathless reports about Charlie Hebdo being an inspiration to us all.

“You just rewarded the objective of terrorists everywhere: Intimidation wins, Sharia Law rules, First Amendment loses, expression is silenced.”

Renald Luzier, the cartoonist who drew the cover sketch – and who is alive only because he was late for work last Wednesday – told reporters that his depiction of the prophet was “nicer than the terrorists’ Muhammad.”

It’s clear that the world prefers the peaceful version. Too bad that some news outlets don’t feel comfortable showing it to their readers and viewers.

Click for more Media Buzz