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Readers insist on equal treatment for 'offensive' cartoons

By Andy Alexander

Sunday's ombudsman column continues to draw strong reaction from readers who feel Post editors lacked spine in deciding not to run a recent "Non Sequitur" cartoon out of concern it would offend Muslims. Online comments and e-mails have been overwhelmingly critical of The Post, which joined many other newspapers in not running the Oct. 3 single-panel drawing.

But quite a few readers have made a separate point, insisting that The Post must now hold to the same standard when it comes to cartoons involving other religions.

"I would hope then that the editorial staff would agree to pull any cartoons depicting Jesus in some offensive way, so as not to offend Christians," e-mailed Michael E. Fitzharris of Dayton, Ohio.

A number of readers mentioned other cartoons in The Post that they feel have been offensive to their faith. Several referenced a March drawing by Post cartoonist Tom Toles that centered on the controversy over sex abuse by Catholic priests. It depicts two sinister looking priests, one holding a rope lasso. They are standing next to a placard with the likeness of Jesus and a Biblical quotation: "Let the little children come to me." One of the priests is saying: "What a great recruitment poster!" (Toles, by the way, was raised Catholic.)

The Post's "pious sentiment" of concern for Muslims is "inoperative when it comes to the sensitivities of Roman Catholic readers, who are sick and tired of endless Toles cartoons ridiculing the Pope, as well as the general anti-Catholic bias of the Post," wrote an online commenter who goes by "Rapvox."

Another, who goes by "Cornell1984," asserted that while Post editors yanked the "Non Sequitur" cartoon so as not to offend Muslims, "they go out of their way to insult Mormons and Christians." The commenter offered no examples.

The "Non Sequitur" cartoon in question was cleverly satirical. It played on opposition from many Muslims to cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The controversy began in 2006 after a Danish newspaper invited cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they see him. Violent Islamic protests ensued in many parts of the world.

More recently, an Islamic cleric issued what was widely interpreted as death threats against two animators for the "South Park" television program who had depicted Muhammad wearing a bear costume. In response, an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" protest was organized in which cartoonists were encouraged to draw Muhammad. The intent was to produce so many depictions of the prophet that it would be impractical to issue death threats against all the cartoonists.

The Oct. 3 cartoon, by "Non Sequitur" creator Wiley Miller, was unique because it referenced the controversy without depicting Muhammad. At the top of the cartoon, the caption reads: "Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher. . ." Beneath it is an innocent mosaic of adults, children and animals relaxing and having fun in a park. It looks like a page out of the popular children's book, "Where’s Waldo?" But at the bottom, Miller completes the opening caption by providing his candidate for the book least likely to find a publisher: "Where’s Muhammad?"

My column said the decision to not run his cartoon left Miller "fuming." He e-mailed to say that rather than fuming, it would be more accurate to say he was "incredulous" that The Post and so many papers chose not to run the "Where’s Muhammad?" drawing.

A week before my column ran, The Post's Michael Cavna, who writes the widely followed "Comic Riffs" blog, was first to report that his newspaper and others had decided to substitute the "Where’s Muhammad?" cartoon with one that had been previously published. His original blog, since updated, has helpful links to stories that provide good background on the controversies -- and death threats -- surrounding cartoon depictions of the prophet. You can read it here.

Although The Post pulled "Where’s Muhammad?" from the newspaper, it apparently forgot to pull it from its Web site. You can view the cartoon here.

The fact that The Post and many other newspapers decided to yank the "Where's Muhammad?" cartoon may have been influenced by an advisory that had been sent to them by Universal UClick, which syndicates "Non Sequitur" to about 800 papers. Because color comics sections are printed in advance, the e-mailed advisory was sent "six or eight weeks" prior to publication, said Universal UClick vice president and managing editor Sue Roush.

She said the advisory did not suggest that editors pull the "Where’s Muhammad?" cartoon. Rather, Roush said, it merely alerted editors that the drawing "may be of concern in some communities" and offered a replacement strip.

Roush called it a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. "If you call attention to it at all, people tend to think, 'Oh, it must be a problem or they wouldn’t be sending me this.'"

As the deadline for typesetting neared, some editors also may have been influenced by the controversy surrounding plans by an obscure Christian pastor in Florida to burn copies of the Koran around the Sept. 11 anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Terry Jones, the minister of a small church in Gainesville, attracted worldwide attention with his plan. He eventually canceled it, but only after Defense Secretary Robert Gates called him, cautioning that it might put the lives of U.S. forces at risk. President Obama had warned that it might trigger al-Qaeda suicide bombings.

The Post's decision to pull the "Where’s Muhammad?" cartoon was made by Style section editor Ned Martel, who told me it "seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message." However, he did not say that the Koran burning controversy played into his decision, which he made after consulting with others including Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli.

My Sunday column concluded that The Post's decision could be seen as "timid" and "sets an awfully low threshold for decisions on whether to withhold words or images that might offend."

That's what many readers have been saying. But their comments have also suggested Muslims are given special treatment by The Post and other news organizations.

"So I guess the lesson for Christians is that they need to start rioting and killing people over anti-Jesus cartoons to gain respect from newspapers like the Washington Post," wrote "BubbaJ3," an online commenter.

Another commenter, "mbs235," echoed that: "So anyone who threatens to kill people can control what the Post prints."

Robert Thorpe of Flagstaff, Arizona, e-mailed, "It is a huge contradiction when newspapers and TV shows treat radical Islam with kid gloves and yet have very little problem portraying other religions in a bad light."

By Andy Alexander  | October 12, 2010; 11:20 AM ET
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Excellent blog postings Mr. Alexander... no human being past or present should be immune to lampooning! Keep up the good work!

Posted by: rodraj | October 13, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

please check out

Posted by: Nabihah | October 13, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

You can always tell when the Post or the Times ombudsmen know their paper is demonstrating liberal bias. They make no criticism of the claim itself and just pass on the readers' comments.

Bottom line is that the Post not only tolerates anti-Christian bigotry, it has several overt anti-Christian bigots on the payroll. Anti-Christian bigotry is fashionable among liberals so it is tolerated at the Post. Further evidence of how the American left hates its own culture while it idealizes the culture of others.

Posted by: bobmoses | October 13, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

But the comic appeared on despite the decision of Post higherups to pull it from the paper, and the top editor Mr Brauchli admitted he was not aware of that. So they made one decision, but the cartoon reached many more readers anyway!

Posted by: Roxcy21 | October 14, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

In 2009 the washington post published a cartoon by Pat Oliphant that depicted a Star of David with fangs poised to devour a palestinian woman and child. Use Google to find many other example of cartoons that employ anti-semetic motifs that have been published in the mainstream media. I don't recall any concerns about offending Jews by the intrepid editors of the washington post.

Posted by: mediabiasdoesntexist | October 14, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Sheer cowardice by Ned. The message is very clear, even the most innocuous reference to Mohammed is grounds for jihad by some. Perhaps he should be editing Doonesbury or Prickly City day be day and deleting any strips that don't have a message in his view.

Or maybe he should simply apologize to Post readers.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 19, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

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