Why You're Not Seeing Those 'Charlie Hebdo' Cartoons


The attacks in Paris this week raised a range of questions for news organizations, in a time when images stream across the world unedited, unverified, but instantaneously. And of course, the cartoonists and editors at Charlie Hebdo were apparently killed because of the images they ran in their magazine. Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. Normally, we talk to him about words. This week we also want to talk to him about images and the decisions that are made.

Mark, thanks for being back with us.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: At week's end, there were a number of editorial voices who were calling on news organizations to run copies of the cartoons that were in Charlie Hebdo. Reporters Without Borders - I'll read a quote from Jeffrey Goldberg, who said on The Atlantic website.

(Reading) To publish the cartoons now is a necessary, but only moderately brave act.

What has NPR done?

MEMMOTT: I understand their position. We have not published the most graphic cartoons. We have not published any of the images of the prophet Muhammad, for instance. We just, in the end didn't feel we could do justice to what Charlie Hebdo has done over the years and give people a true picture of the kinds of cartoons it had put out. If we didn't put out a lot, that would really bust our standards, not just bend our standards, but bust them.

SIMON: Is this self-censorship?

MEMMOTT: No. We edit - or, we censor, if you want to use that word - all the time. There are images, videos, sounds that we just don't think people want to hear, that will offend them, that will shock them. And in this case, many of the editorials, many of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo has done over the years would do just that. And we feel we can stand up for their right to publish them. We believe in their right to publish them. We don't necessarily, though, have to republish them ourselves.

SIMON: Do news organization sometimes have to shock or offend to tell a story?

MEMMOTT: Yes. Yes, there are times. There are times we've put words on the air that we really shouldn't because it was imperative. There've been instances where expletives got on because it was during war and a soldier accidentally slipped, things like that. But in this case, do the people who are shocked and horrified by what happened in Paris need to also be shocked and horrified - as many might - by the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo ran over the years? Probably not. I think you can hold both opinions. You can be offended by what they did and be horrified by what the killers did.

SIMON: There are ways to see the cartoons.

MEMMOTT: There are many ways to see the cartoons. We're not denying anybody anything. They're all over the Web if you want to find them.

SIMON: This is less a decision motivated by concerns about safety than an editorial judgment.

MEMMOTT: Yes. No news organization could seriously say that it doesn't think about the safety of its journalists, when these cartoons might've been the cause for the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo's offices a few years back and the murder of its staff this week. But, we're journalists. We're willing to take risks. We know that sometimes we'll have to. Editorially, we just didn't think that we could post enough of the images to give you a sense of what the magazine was really like. If you only put a few, it might look like it was just little bit edgier than MAD magazine, and that's just not the case.

SIMON: And finally, is this or any standards and practices policy the last word?

MEMMOTT: No. We revisit these things all the time. There may come a moment when we feel we need to show some of these images. I don't know when that will be, but we talk about it all the time.

SIMON: NPR's standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott. You can reach him, by the way, at wordmatters@npr.org.

Thank you, Mark.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome.

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