The Jennings blog has moved!

As of October 1, 2011 the Jennings Project blog has moved and joined forces with Constitution Daily, the Center’s daily digest of smart conversation on the Constitution. All new posts will be published there, so be sure to subscribe and follow Constitution Daily on Twitter. If you are interested in submitting a post to Constitution Daily, please email Stefan Frank at

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yale's "Blood Veto": How Fear of Retribution Can Still Stop The Presses

After reading a story in yesterday's New York Times on the decision by Yale University Press to publish Jytte Klausen's "The Cartoons That Shook the World," a book about the 2006 uproar over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, we asked journalist Harry Siegel, a 2009 Jennings Fellow, to post a response here. To Klausen's great regret, the publisher refused to include the cartoons themselves for fear of stirring more violence. Siegel is an editor at Politico. In 2006, he resigned as the editor-in-chief of New York Press when ownership decided to pull these very same cartoons from an issue dedicated to articles about them. While Yale's action does not, of course, constitute a first amendment issue, it does raise the question: when publishers themselves (not the government) censor material from public view, what is the proper response?

The controversy surrounding the Danish Muhammed cartoons continues to be, well, cartoonish. But the double-speak about what is and is not acceptable to print, and why, is a much more serious matter.

The latest development came in a dispatch in today's New York Times reporting that Yale University Press, well respected for its publication of materials from the Soviet archives, decided the 12 drawings were too hot to print — in a book about them, Brandeis Professor Jytte Klausen's forthcoming "The Cartoons That Shook the World.”

To recap the absurdities:
-Yale not only pulled the cartoons, but also several other historical images of Muhammad that have seen print before, inspiring no bloodshed, or threats of it.

-The determination to pull the images was made by a secret panel, whose recommendations, we are assured by Yale University Press head John Donatich, were "overwhelming and unanimous." Since the report wasn't public, there's no way to know if that's true, or who was making the recommendations. Klausen says Yale would only let her read a summary of the report if she signed a confidentiality agreement.

-Donatich told the Times that he had published other controversial books and “never blinked.” But, he added, “when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question.” Given that the publication of the cartoons by the New York Sun and other American outlets inspired no violence at all, this seems at once outlandish and offensive. In any case, it's a scary standard for what can see print, establishing what could be called a blood veto. (And his example of his past editorial bravery? An unauthorized biography of Thailand's king.)

-Donatich also pointed out that since the cartoons can be easily found online, reprinting them could be seen as gratuitous. If print's obituary does run online one day, expect to see this rationale in the lede.

Add to Yale's follies this patched-in sentence near the end of the Times report: "Other publishers, including The New York Times, chose not to print the cartoons or images of Muhammad when the controversy erupted worldwide in February 2006."

Fair enough, except for the paper's "when the controversy erupted" timeframe. Nearly four years after the cartoons were printed in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, and after the riots they nominally caused were front-page news worldwide, the paper of record has never seen the images as "news that's fit to print." The Times report today runs with a large, blurry and smeared shot of protesters that looks little better online, and certainly appears to be beneath the paper's usual image standards. One wonders if the paper slotted one of the cartoons, and then made a late pull.

While the bout of self-censorship is surely newspeak and double-speak, it's not Orwellian that there's no top-down authority governing thought content. Instead, newspapers, book publishers and television stations have taken it upon themselves to yield before any such coercion is necessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment