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On the Media: Where’s Muhammad? Not on many comics pages

The civilized, peace-seeking world understandably recoils any time extremists threaten violence against people for trafficking in the free flow of ideas.

So it’s been no surprise that cartoonists have been casting about for the best way to express their outrage at Muslim fanatics who have been threatening cartoonists who have dared to satirize the prophet Muhammad.

One form of counter-protest can be seen floating around the Internet — a series of cartoons that are inartful at best and offensive at worst — depicting Islam’s most sacred figure as a nut or a thug. The message seems to be: Violent incitement should be met with mindless provocation.

Cartoonist Wiley Miller gets credit for offering a more precise and reasoned rejoinder with his “Non Sequitur” offering of Oct. 3. The only hitch: the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post and many other papers pulled the cartoon that had been drawn to highlight the madness of the extremists and the hypersensitivity of the media.

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By killing the panel the newspapers fell into the very kind of timidity or conflict aversion that the cartoon had intended to expose. A mildly provocative image that would have slipped quickly into obscurity instead has won a second life, more powerful and ironic by its initial absence.

That’s not to agree with some commentators who have called the refusal to run the comic a cowardly retreat from radicals. I’d say the ax that fell on “Non Sequitur” had more to do expediency. Moving in a hurry, with many other decisions that seemed more pressing at the time, editors probably killed the item rather than face the possibility of a furor for a piece they honestly felt was not of high quality.

The episode would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for a column written last Sunday by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander criticizing his paper for cancelling a cartoon that he called “a powerful and witty endorsement of freedom of expression.”

I didn’t find the panel especially powerful or witty. But it made its point well enough and deserved its perch in the jam-packed Sunday comic pages. Papers that ran it got little, if any, blowback.

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The cartoon played off the “Where’s Waldo?” books, which inspire children to search for the cartoon figure with oversize spectacles amid huge crowds and elaborate cityscapes.

Wiley’s cartoon showed a whimsical park, humans strolling and sunning alongside animals. Above the picture, Wiley offered: “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher….” The punch line: “Where’s Muhammad?”

No Muhammad figure appeared. Miller drew the cartoon, he told the Post’s ombudsman, to satirize “the insanity of an entire group of people rioting and putting out a hit list over cartoons.” It also targeted “media cowering in fear of printing any cartoon that contains the word ‘Muhammad.’ ”

Wiley addressed a delicate topic in a fairly novel way and did so without gratuitously offending.

The same hasn’t been true of all the cartoonists who have plunged into the Muhammad furor. After Comedy Central censored parts of a “South Park” episode in April in which Muhammad was depicted in a bear suit, a cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly called for an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” That, in turn, inspired misanthropes to post inflammatory images of the holy figure. A pig, a horse and, in one case, Charles Manson appeared in turban and beard.

The Weekly’s Molly Norris had originally offered her own attempt at whimsy — with a domino, spool of thread, coffee cup and other household items all drawn under the headline: “Will the REAL likeness of the Prophet Mohammed please stand up?” But the other cartoons turned so intentionally hurtful that Norris backed away from the campaign.

That did not stop Islamic extremists, according to news reports, from adding Norris to a list of those targeted for death.

These insane calls to violence have gone on for too long. And the insistence on a zone of safety and security for free speech must remain sacrosanct. Who wants to live in a world where benign protests like Norris’ (who has moved and changed her identity) can lead to a death sentence?

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But that’s not the lone standard for newspaper editors, who want to inform without needlessly offending. Inflammatory pictures and stories get spiked on occasion to preserve a civil sounding board.

It’s hard to believe that Miller’s sunny “Non Sequitur” fit in this category. In the park scene, a dog walks his master, a giraffe licks an ice cream cone and a hippo suns himself. The prophet is present only in his absence.

Somehow Washington Post Style editor Ned Martel viewed the same image as “a deliberate provocation without a clear message.” He also told his paper’s ombudsman that it might not be immediately clear to readers that Muhammad did not appear in the drawing.

The Boston Globe had a similar complaint. Deputy managing editor Christine Chinlund said via e-mail: “When a cartoon takes on a sensitive subject, especially religion, it has an obligation to be clear. The ‘Where’s Muhammad’ cartoon did not meet that test. It leaves the reader searching for clues, staring at a busy drawing, trying to discern a likeness, wondering if the outhouse at the top of the drawing is significant — in other words, perplexed.”

Said Alice Short, an L.A. Times assistant managing editor: “If they had produced a ‘Non Sequitur’ cartoon that said ‘Where’s Jesus?’ I probably wouldn’t have wanted to run that either.”

But if the newspaper editors went about the business of killing less than A-plus work, the comic pages would have many blank spots every day. The result would be the same if they always leaned over backward to cater to the most sensitive among us.

The cartoon’s distributor, Universal Uclick, made such decisions easy. It sent out a message warning that “the subject matter may be sensitive in some communities.” And Universal immediately offered the 800 papers that carry “Non Sequitur” a substitute panel.

I couldn’t reach editors at the San Francisco Chronicle and Dallas Morning News. Those papers also killed the cartoon, as did an untold number of others. Universal and Miller said they had no way of keeping count. At the Austin ( Texas) American-Statesman a senior editor named Drew Marcks told me when I asked about the cartoon, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

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I pressed. He hung up.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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