February 23, 2006
A Question of Representation
William "The Gambler" Bennett and Alan Dershowitz have joined forces in The Washington Post to Attack the Press for choosing not to publish the offensive anti-Muslim cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper a few months ago. Ester at babblebook summarizes the basic argument far better than I could. Essentially they're arguing that "the terrorists have won because the American press refused to publish the Danish caricatures." While I've generally avoided the discussion of these caricatures in a free speech context, I think the logic of their editorial should not go unchallenged, especially when it comes to their characterization of "freedom of expression" and of what ought to be represented in the public sphere.
First, I think it's worth challenging their characterization of the media as a monolithic entity. In his foreword to The Future of Media (a great collection of essays by the way), Bill Moyers expresses his discomfort with the term, "the media," as a catch-all phrase. While Moyers is primarily addressing the distinctions between individual journalists, as a media studies scholar, i find that the phrase obscures more than it reveals, especially when it comes to distinctions between newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and other media.
In fact, their attack on the press relies upon the assumption that people who follow the news get their information only from the mass media, from the newspapers who have, correctly in my opinion, chosen not to publish the Danish cartoons. While most newspapers have made this choice, the cartoons are widely available in multiple outlets on the internet. To be sure, not everyone has access to the internet, but the cartoons would not have been disseminated so rapidly without it once they became useful as a tool for stirring up outrage.
Dershowitz and Bennett's other arguments, however, are far more insidious. While they imply on the one hand that The Media has capitulated to the terrorists, they also fault the same Media for printing stories that inconveniently call attention to the illegal and unethical actions committed by memebrs of the Bush administration in the name of a war on terror, namely the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and their practice of wiretapping without obtaining a warrant, suggesting with just a small degree of caution that such stories "could harm our allies."
Of course, they are assuming that we will forget that several major newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times felt compelled to apologize for their reporting before the war because their reports accepted at face value Bush administration claims about WMD and links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (among other issues). To suggest that mjor news outlets have effectively challenged Bush administration claims about the war, much less actively undermined that effort, seems utterly unsupportable.
They also make a false comparison between the role of watchdog journalism and the "need" to disseminate the Danish caricatures. One of the main reasons free expression is guarded so religiously is that it is an important tool in protecting against public officials who might abuse the trust voters have placed in them. While the First Amendment protects the right to publish the cartoons (I'll never argue otherwise), there's a larger issue at stake in terms of responsibility. Again, the Danish images are already widely available. Smart reporters can describe them quite effectively in their articles, so I think tolerance should win out here.
Finally, they make massive generalizations about the "Islamist street" (is that anywhere near Evangelical Avenue?), throwing around phrases such as "cartoon intifada" that reduce and trivialize the real differences among the responses to the cartoons (Ramzy Baroud's response is just one example of this). In fact, this notion of the "Islamist street" is used to portray all of the protests and protestors as violent, citing the obviously troubling signs that read, "Behead those who insult Islam." While I condemn the violent protestors, I think it's somewhat unreasonable to characterize any outraged response to these cartoons in this manner (did they have similar objections when Ann Coulter demanded after 9/11 that the US "kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity").
In short, Bennett and Dershowitz are essentially complicit with the talking points that have been repeated ad nauseum for the last four or five years, as their conclusion implies in which they imply that "they [whoever they are] hate our freedoms" when it's really our policies they hate.
Update: Just noticed that Glenn Greenwald has made a similar argument about Bennett and Dershowitz's masqerading as free press advocates when in fact they are actually attacking teh foundations of journalists' attempts to investigate and challenge the Bush administration. I still disagree with Greenwald's claim that newspapers ought to publish the offensive cartoons, but he offers an important defsense of the rights of journalists to investigate the Bush White House.
Posted by chuck at February 23, 2006 12:06 PM
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