Groping in the Dark: Danish cartoons a challenge for mainstream media

May 19, 2010

Editor’s Note: The following essay appears in Understanding Terror: Perspectives for Canadians, edited by Karim-Aly S. Kassam and published by The University of Calgary Press. Copywrite 2010 Karim-Aly S. Kassam.

Troy Media Exclusive: Part 4 of 4

Groping in the Dark Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

By Doug Firby
Managing Editor
Troy Media

While the Danish cartoon controversy may have provided a rare marketing opportunity for some niche media, it posed an unprecedented challenge for the mainstream media and their sincere but untested codes of ethics.

The Western Standard‘s Levant dismissed mainstream media as a collection of weak-kneed conciliators: “The self-censorship amongst Canada’s media was more uniform than had there been a court order banning Canadian media from showing those cartoons. . . . The self-censorship of 10,000 editors and producers [was] a far more effective attack on the culture of liberty than 9/11 was. That’s the soft jihad of censorship and lawfare at work,” he wrote to me (personal communication, July 5, 2009).

Understanding-TerrorThe simple fact of the matter is the media were unprepared for the complexities of the story that followed the militant Muslim terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001. Although a few news outlets had nibbled around the edges of the story of anti-U.S. antipathy around the world – CBS’s 60 Minutes, for example, interviewed Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s – the threat was apparently dismissed by the U.S. intelligence community as small and manageable, and the media were willing to generally ignore a topic that wasn’t in vogue until the country was effectively blindsided by an attack on several architectural symbols of military and economic might. And with the attacks, the greatest reporting challenge in years, they resorted to the familiar: reverting to an almost pornographic emotional indulgence, telling and retelling the stories of the victims, their broken-hearted families, the heroes and all the other clichas that sustain the media’s stock-in-trade – catastrophe. I referred earlier to the propensity to exploit the emotional dimensions of crime and automobile mishaps – known in the industry as “ambulance-chasing.” For most media, the ensuing coverage of 9/11 became, in effect, ambulance-chasing on a global scale. The complexities and nuances of the story were sacrificed in favour of the provocative and easy-to-digest.

Media not up to the challenge

The hard part of this story is understanding why, and it is there that the majority of the media have still not yet met the challenge. Of course, the story is not about Osama bin Laden – as significant a role as he played – it is about understanding the interplay of religion, social consensus, and conflicting inter­national interests. It is about festering resentments and ill-considered and ill-timed foreign aggression. It is about a swaggering, over-confident rich nation flaunting a seemingly godless society to a much poorer world. It is about runaway consumerism, and the imperatives (notably oil supply) such consumption creates. Those stories are being told, but primarily by the alternative media, and primarily on hundreds of web sites and blogs.

The most notable exception to this ineptitude is the June 2006 Harper‘s magazine, which, in publishing all of the cartoons, did so in a highly contextualized manner, delivered with good humour and common sense by Art Spiegelman. Only through his thoughtful analysis did the publication avoid the accusation of provocation such agenda-driven magazines as the Western Standard have been unable to refute.

Context is the critical point. If the mainstream media are to learn anything from this experience, it should be the necessity to contextualize in an increasingly complex world. This is not merely a moral responsibility. If newspapers wish to turn around their sagging credibility ratings – which they must, if they are to survive – then they must recognize the economic benefit of delivering a product that more closely aligns with what consumers require – information that provides context. The Danish cartoon controversy is incomprehensible unless a news consumer fully understands the geopolitical forces that have created the circumstances for it to occur. And, once there is a full understanding of the context, an editor who must choose whether to publish the cartoons faces a much simpler ethical decision than it might at first appear.

Instantaneous decision-making

But editors do not have the luxury of time as news unfolds. They must make almost instantaneous decisions, often in the absence of full information. We – in particular, owners and proprietors of the media, and educators – can help them by bolstering the amount of background they have as stories unfold, and by recognizing that good editors must have a much fuller pallet of skills than just having a way with words. It is, in effect, a compelling argument that the best editors in future will have a sense of history and a grounding in philosophy and will devote every available moment to staying ahead of emerging trends. Doing any less is a disservice to those who rely upon the media to tell them what is going on.

Groping in the Dark Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4