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Charlie Hebdo’s challenge to old media

Marketplace Staff Jan 14, 2015

It’s yet another sign of the growing distance between old and new media.

Many of the established stalwarts  including the New York Times, NBC News, CNN and NPR  declined to publish an image of the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo,  which features a  caricature of the Prophet Muhammad holding a sign that reads “Je Suis Charlie” beneath the words “All Is Forgiven.” The cover, of course, is a response to the terrorist attack against the satirical magazine one week ago that killed 12 people, including its editor and five of its top cartoonists.

Most digital news outlets rushed the image onto the Internet yesterday after the magazine released it a day ahead of publication. The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Yahoo.com and MSN.com were among the sites prominently displaying it.

“We didn’t even consider not publishing the new cover,” says Max Fisher, director of content for the news site Vox. “These cartoons have major news value as they are an important part of this story, so we feel it’s part of our jobs to provide them to readers.”

Marketplace editors determined that the cover was of significant enough news value to warrant publication on Marketplace.org.

The split isn’t absolute:  The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal used the cover. But many old-media editors argued that the decision not to publish came down to a matter of taste.

“Many Muslims consider publishing images of their prophet innately offensive and because we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities, we have refrained from publishing these images of Muhammad,” a New York Times spokeswoman told Marketplace.

Within the Times, the decision was controversial.

“The new cover image of Charlie Hebdo is an important part of a story that has gripped the world’s attention over the past week,” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper’s public editor in a piece published online Wednesday. “The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive. And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value.”

What’s behind the split?

“There’s no question that there is evidence of a digital divide between legacy news brands and digital-first news in publishing the cartoons,” says John Avlon, editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast. “I think the primary reason is due to the more bureaucratic, culturally cautious nature of older news brands versus the more aggressive and, in this case, principled stand that the younger generation of news brands felt free to pursue.”

What do the experts think?  “I think that this new Charlie Hebdo cover easily passes the test for a newsworthy image,” says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “Come on.  How Charlie Hebdo grapples with the murders of its editors and artists is a matter of unquestionable political importance and cultural significance. It is also the truest test of satire – finding an image that is potent, compassionate and relevant in the face of unspeakable horror. This cover is news, pure and simple.”

After an initial print run, partly funded by Google, of 3 million copies, Charlie Hebdo has gone back to press. The magazine is being distributed in 25 countries and translated into 16 languages, including Arabic. Charlie Hebdo’s normal print run is some 60,000 copies. 

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