Blasphemy As Sacred Rite/Right: The Mohammed Cartoons Affair and Maintenance of Journalistic Ideology

Dan Berkowitz & Lyombe Eko. Journalism Studies. Volume 8, Issue 5. 2007.


On September 30, 2005, Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 satirical drawings depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The newspaper saw this act as a way of spurring debate about self-censorship in the media at a time when freedom of expression seemed threatened. Although controversial in Denmark, the act of publishing these dozen cartoons drew little attention from the press of other nations.

But the controversy did not go away. More than three months later, an article appeared in The New York Times reporting on a “global furor” the cartoons were causing, a clash of Islam and the West in which Denmark had become an unlikely participant (Bilefsky, 2006a). Still, the issue remained mostly quiet in the world news media as boycotts and protests began to boil across the Muslim world. Then, on February 1, 2006, several European newspapers joined the fray, publishing the cartoons once again (Cowell, 2006b).

On the face of it, this controversy and the cartoon republications simply represent a form of journalistic solidarity, a broad-based support for freedom of the press. At a deeper level, though, engagement in the issue by other news media represents something larger: the maintenance of a journalistic paradigm and a sacred right to exercise it in the national culture in which it resides. This case explores how two national flagship newspapers—The New York Times and France’s Le Monde—undertook this maintenance work through their coverage. Despite differences in journalistic paradigms, national cultures, and the respective countries’ relationships to Islam and terrorism, both newspapers’ coverage was aimed at the same basic goal and carried the same significance to the particular journalistic cultures. In addition, this case demonstrates that there is not a singular paradigm for Western journalism, but instead multiple paradigms that grow from the national cultures in which they are embedded.

This study begins with an overview of the issue and how it connects to the national and journalistic cultures of France and the United States. This is followed by conceptual discussions of journalistic paradigm repair, the terrorism news frame, and freedom of the press. Data come from a textual analysis of articles published by the two newspapers during the heat of the controversy in 2006.

Context of the Study

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten will go down in history as the newspaper whose cartoons of Prophet Mohammad shook the global village and precipitated what some writers call an unprecedented clash of Western and Arabo-Islamic worldviews (Kauffmann, 2006; Tincq, 2006a). Founded in 1871, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten is Denmark’s largest circulation daily. It is a self-described “liberal newspaper independent of political, financial, organisational, religious and commercial interests” (Jyllands-Posten, 2006b).

The global furor over the Mohammad cartoons started with the inability of a Danish author to find an illustrator for a children’s book about Prophet Mohammad. Jyllands-Posten wrote several articles on the situation and concluded that it was a case of self-censorship, “untenable for non-Muslims to be bound by Muslim scripture” (2006a). In order to find out the extent of self-censorship in Denmark over Islamic issues, the newspaper asked Danish illustrators to “submit their personal interpretations on how the prophet might appear” (2006a). Twelve illustrators sent in cartoons, which were published in September 2005.

However, the newspaper underestimated the emotional reaction of Danish Muslims—and the power of the media in this age of globalization. The imams of Denmark compiled a 43-page dossier that included the 12 cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten plus other fake, highly inflammatory, anti-Muslim cartoons. In November 2005, a delegation of imams from Denmark traveled to the Middle East to gather support for protests against the Danish cartoons. In Saudi Arabia, the imams distributed the 43-page cartoons dossier in the sidelines of the meeting of the 57-member Islamic Conference Organization. They passed off their cartoon dossier, including the fake, unpublished inflammatory ones, as Jyllands-Posten cartoons. This is what triggered the world-wide demonstrations (Howden et al., 2006). The Arabo-Islamic world experienced an unprecedented outpouring of anger at Jyllands-Posten, and Denmark.

On January 29, 2006, the Islamic Conference Organization and the Arab League called on the United Nations to pass a resolution “banning attacks on religious beliefs” (Islam Online, 2006). Amid the world-wide riots and calls for punishment of the Danish newspaper and journalists, the leading newspapers of continental Europe republished the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. Muslim mobs from Palestine to Libya promptly added the European Union countries to their list of targets.

The Cultural Context for French and American Journalism

Though French and American journalism are part of the “western” journalistic paradigm, the cultural specificities of the two countries lead to marked contrasts in their journalistic styles, their roles as “cultural institutions,” their respective attitudes towards the government, and their conceptualizations of the place of the sacred and the secular in public affairs. French journalism is a literary journalism that has always placed the “exposé of ideas” on a higher plane than the “recitation of events” (Albert, 1977). For the French journalist, being the judge of the event and the guide of the opinions of the readers is more important than being a witness to the event. Thus, to ask French journalists to separate fact from commentary or opinion is to ask for the impossible (Albert, 1977; Gaunt, 1990; Gaunt and Pritchard, 1990; Salinger, 1980).

Most crucially, contemporary French journalists resent being considered “news specialists” because the real form of journalism in France has always been and still is largely news analysis rather than news reporting (Albert, 1977). This is because French journalism has always been more a journalism of expression than a journalism of observation (Gaunt, 1990). It is historically more rooted in a “tradition of literary style, intellectual elegance, and Gallic ‘logic’ than in the terse exposition of facts” (Gaunt and Pritchard, 1990, p. 185). Indeed, up to the 19th century, French journalists rejected the idea that they could also be reporters. The reasons for this attitude are historic: for centuries, as a result of strict control of information by the authorities under the “Ancien Regime,” French journalists got used to receiving information only from the authorities: Their job was to comment on that information (Bellanger et al., 1975).

In a comparative analysis of “Anglo-American” and “Continental” European journalistic styles, Rice and Cooney (1982) observed that the fundamental difference between the two journalistic styles is their treatment of fact and opinion. American newspapers take great pains to separate fact from opinion and to be generally “objective” in their reporting. At French and other continental European newspapers, reporters are expected to pass judgment; the real news is a reporter’s assessment of what happened (Rice and Cooney, 1982). American “worship of facts”—complete with fact checkers—is the aspect of American journalism that “shocks” French readers of American newspapers (Albert, 1977).

The French posture towards religion is also markedly different from the American attitude towards religion. As a Catholic kingdom, France banned the publication of all material critical of the Roman Catholic Church. The Revolution of 1789 led to the suppression of the Catholic religion, “de-Christianization” and secularization of France. The French state set itself up as a “counterchurch” whose creed was secular republicanism (Césari, 2005). Anti-clericalism has always been a feature of French secularism. The Mohammad cartoons controversy—and its ramifications in France—therefore touched a raw political and cultural nerve.

In contrast, it has been argued that American political, cultural and social ideals expressed in the statement the “American way of life” are founded on Puritan values and principles emphasizing discipline and strict moral standards (Bennett, 1998; Emerson, 1968). The Declaration of Independence contains references to God, as well as to a “Supreme Being.” Though the First Amendment proscribes the establishment of a national religion, the American national anthem proclaims “In God is our trust,” an idea that also appears on American currency. Richard McBrien (1987) describes contemporary American society as a society with a “public religion”—shared religious values like belief in God and good behavior towards others—found in all denominations. Public religion has become part of the national culture, and is the foundation of the “American way of life.”

Furthermore, in the United States, unlike France, there is suspicion of government. The threat to American liberties is seen to come from the government, not religion, not the church, not multiculturalism as is the case in France. Indeed, free speech is framed negatively in the United States. The First Amendment expressly bars Congress from interfering with the freedom of speech of Americans.

This cultural context of the French and American press helps put Le Monde (the most prestigious newspaper in France) and The New York Times (America’s newspaper of record) into perspective. Though Le Monde expresses several points of view, the newspaper is generally Gaullist (nationalistic) in tone. It is noted for the excellence of its news coverage and the vigor of its editorial analysis (Hachten, 1992; Schramm, 1959). Le Monde is widely circulated and read by intellectuals and the international elite, the undisputed symbol of what the French call, “La Presse d’Opinion” [the editorial press] (Freiberg, 1981; Jeanneney, 1996). Hostert (1973) found that from its founding in 1944, Le Monde was “favorably prejudiced” toward the Soviet Union; in the 1970s the newspaper exhibited what Jeanneney (1996) calls an “unbridled sinophilia.” Indeed, Le Monde has been accused of having a leftist, anti-American bias (Aron, 1983; Sévillia, 2000), explained in part by the Gallic desire to be independent of perceived American hegemony, and in part by the fact Le Monde (and the Agence France Presse, from which it got many of its stories) had been infiltrated by the KGB (Andrew and Mitrokhin, 1999).

Maintaining the Journalistic Paradigm Through Sacred Rite

Although the two countries’ national cultures and journalistic paradigms are distinct, it would be expected that both would be protected and maintained with equal fervor. In essence, journalism operates through a professional paradigm, a way of seeing and interpreting the world that is taken for granted as the way by those who practice it. Because engaging in the journalistic paradigm becomes a lived experience, journalists and the journalistic institution need to find ways of dealing with anomalies that arise over time (Bennett et al., 1985; Berkowitz, 2000; Hindman, 2005; Reese, 1990).

When application of a journalistic paradigm appears faulty, journalists work to assert the boundaries of acceptable practice (Bishop, 2004). This process becomes ritual, a meaningful process recognized and enacted by journalists during times of crisis (Couldry, 2005; Ehrlich, 1996). This ritual is not taken lightly, but represents a near-religious performative for the profession, essentially, a sacred rite (Lardellier, 2005). Most crucially, paradigm repair becomes a way of sustaining an intellectual position about authority of knowledge and freedom of speech. Without those elements, the news institution would degenerate into chaos and the very legitimacy of news organizations might be threatened.

Thus, to work within a specific journalistic paradigm becomes a sacred right; the process of protecting it becomes a sacred rite. This assertion becomes clearer by shifting from a sociological vision of paradigm repair to one based more in a cultural perspective. One of the most common techniques for maintaining specific journalistic paradigms is, to borrow the expression of Derrida (1967), “re-presentation,” the act of presenting existing ideas and abstract concepts anew. In times of crises when journalistic paradigms are challenged, abused or misused, journalists re-present these paradigms anew to readers and audiences, in an attempt to re-acquaint these news consumers with what journalism really is and what role it plays in society. This is done by drawing express or implied boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable, legal and illegal, ethical and unethical journalistic practice.

Within the framework of Derrida’s (1967) concept of re-presentation, we can assert that when journalists write or speak to their audiences about journalistic paradigms or concepts such as free speech, they also speak to themselves. Doing so reifies these ideals, socializing new members of the profession to the importance of the journalistic paradigm, and reiterating their right to work within this paradigm, as well as their sacred rite to protect the paradigm. Legrand (2003) viewed re-presentation as the studied re-enactment of political, social and cultural dramas within a context of unequal power relations between a re-presenter and the re-presented. As an act of power, journalists have the ability to choose content and sources that help perform the task of paradigm maintenance. In short, journalists have the power to “give the last word” to sources that will do the ideological heavy-lifting for them. Foucault concurs that communication is an act of power because to communicate is “to act on the other or on others” (1994, p. 233). Thus, part of the power of journalism is its ability to assume a didactic posture when journalistic ideologies and paradigms come under attack. Every attack on free speech becomes for journalists, a “teachable moment,” an opportunity to educate audiences on journalistic values. Thus, the so-called “Mohammad cartoon affair” presents an opportunity to re-examine journalistic paradigm repair from a comparative cultural perspective.

This discussion prompts two research questions. First, how did paradigm work surface in news coverage by Le Monde and The New York Times about the Mohammad cartoons? Second, what role did national culture play in the nature of paradigm maintenance?


Because this study focuses on the nuances of a news discourse and the contrasts between two newspapers drawn from different languages and cultures, a qualitative approach seemed appropriate. The research team included members knowledgeable in both French and US news media and culture. Preliminary online searches found that many European newspapers, especially French, covered the issue extensively and that the realm of newspapers analyzed needed to be narrow in order to achieve adequate depth of analysis. Ultimately, the researchers decided to draw on the flagship newspaper in each country, Le Monde and The New York Times. These two newspapers could be considered as representatives of both their cultures and their distinct journalistic paradigms.

Searches were then conducted within the two newspapers to identify news items about the Mohammad cartoons controversy. This was broad-based, using only “Jyllands Posten,” with Lexis-Nexis searched for The New York Times and the Le Monde online archives searched to locate news items there. Because Le Monde‘s editorial style includes cartoons, lively headlines and other visual elements, articles from that newspaper were examined from photocopies of original editions. Inspecting The New York Times, in contrast, found it to be relatively staid: visual elements did not contribute additional meaning to the news items. In that case, articles were drawn from a Lexis-Nexis search and printouts were examined. Articles were then read from both newspapers, and those where Jyllands-Posten and the cartoon controversy were only peripheral were eliminated from the data set. Overall, 19 of the 21 articles were included from The New York Times and 31 of the 40 articles were included from Le Monde.

Before analysis took place, the conceptual framework for this study was developed to clarify the interpretive lens. Researchers discussed the framework and considered examples from a preliminary reading of articles that would illustrate the various dimensions of paradigm work and boundary maintenance. Both agreed that ample evidence was available in these articles. One researcher then read articles from The New York Times and one read (in French) articles from Le Monde, each seeking basic themes that represented paradigm work strategies in the content. After discussion of the themes, researchers again read the articles to gather material that exemplified the themes.

This type of grounded textual analysis (Lindlof and Taylor, 2002) allows themes to emerge from the content through multiple readings and discussions of the texts. Detailed notes were written on copies of the news items and then re-read as the analysis was written. This process formed the analytic process for the discussions that follow.

Reiterating the Sacred Right to Blaspheme: Le Monde‘s Discursive Coverage

Virtually all French newspapers and magazines republished some or all of the controversial cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-PostenLe Monde was in the thick of the fight. It published two of the cartoons, drew one of its own on the front page, and created an online portfolio of the cartoons as they had appeared in Jyllands-Posten. This provided an unprecedented opportunity for Le Monde—France’s newspaper of record—to engage in five key realms of paradigm work, including (1) paradigmatic and ideological maintenance and restatement; (2) differentiating Western and Arabo-Islamic free speech values; (3) differentiating Western and Arabo-Islamic journalistic contexts and values; (4) repairing the European journalistic paradigm battered by Jyllands-Posten‘s amalgamation of Islam and terrorism; and (5) examining the “border within the border,” that is, the distinction between the United States, Britain, and the rest of the West towards the controversial cartoons.

The first theme—paradigmatic and ideological maintenance—was accomplished through Le Monde’s coverage about the clash between freedom of speech and respect for religion. It also used the controversy to represent or restate Western free speech ideologies, particularly France’s brand of secular republicanism. On February 2, 2006, a day after newspapers across Europe had republished the controversial Mohammad cartoons, demonstrations had broken out in most of the member countries of the Islamic Conference Organization. Le Monde published an editorial (“Caricatures Libres”) that day representing French free speech in a rather didactic fashion, concluding:

Commandments and religious proscriptions cannot therefore be placed above republican laws, without risking dangerous deviations and inquisitions … A Muslim may be shocked by an especially spiteful cartoon of Mohammad. But a democracy cannot install an opinion police, without violating human rights (2006a, p. 2)

This editorial essentially used the cartoon controversy as a teachable opportunity, restating the country’s Voltairian, anti-clerical free speech ideology: the French constitution protects freedom of religion, but that does not trump freedom of the press (Kauffmann, 2006).

Le Monde used other tactics beside its own editorials to accomplish this goal. One way was to invite writers (Bechnir et al., 2006), editorial cartoonists and caricaturists from around the world, as well as Arab and Muslim readers of the newspaper to express their opinions on the Mohammad cartoon affair (Solé, 2006). Most of them analyzed the controversy within the framework of France’s system of secular republicanism. Though these intellectuals and readers had a wide range of opinions, nearly all supported freedom of expression.

A lawyer, writing in Le Monde (Borrillo, 2006), summarized the views of the majority of the contributors invited by Le Monde, shoring up the secular republican ideological stance of the newspaper. In “Blasphemy, a Sacred Right,” he wrote that in France, blasphemy had been abolished by the Revolution of 1789:

French laws against religious discrimination were enacted to protect persons belonging to minority groups against acts and pronouncements that incited hatred … The law is clearly aimed at protecting persons, not metaphysical [religious] systems. These systems are cultural constructions that can and must be subject to criticism and even derision. (Borrillo, 2006, p. 18)

Le Monde concluded its ideological representation, opining that under France’s secular republican system, “the limits of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be set by believers, no matter who they are” (D’Arcais, 2006). Le Monde also taught these principles by example, republishing two of the controversial cartoons, two of their own, including and adding an ironic front page cartoon of a bearded figure being formed out the words, “I must not draw Mohammad … I must not draw Mohammad …” repeated as if in punishment.

A second theme involved mapping out and differentiating Western and Arabo-Islamic human rights values. In an article entitled “Caricatures: the geopolitics of indignations,” Roy (2006) contrasted the violent, convulsive demonstrations in the Middle East with the moderate, reasoned reactions in Europe. That article argued that the “map of the riots show that the countries affected by the violence are those in which the regimes and certain political forces have scores to settle with Europeans” (2006, p.17).

The Mohammed cartoons controversy gave Le Monde an opportunity to survey the geopolitical landscape. Tincq mapped out the border areas in which Islam and the West parted company, stating:

[T]wo systems of mutual exclusion founded on ignorance. Ignorance of the interior motives of the Muslim faith, on the one hand; [and] on the other, ignorance of freedom of creation in an Arabo-Islamic world deprived of rights and of democracy … The freedom of the artist and the writer is sacred in the West, but Muslims challenge this application of the superiority of a Western ideal that cannot be changed (2006a, p. 7)

When the 57 member countries of the Islamic Conference Organization submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations that would have declared “the defamation of religions and prophets incompatible with the right of free expression,” Le Monde saw it as an attempt to diminish the geography of freedom: “How many of these countries respect freedom of expression? How many journalists are imprisoned in these countries? What is the value of [human] rights to Western countries represented at the United Nations?” (Kauffmann, 2006, p. 2).

The newspaper additionally urged Western countries not to succumb to attempts by Muslim countries to extend their “frontiers of the sacred” to the rest of the world.

The third theme dealt with journalistic realities in much the same way that Le Monde had done with the cultural ones. Here, Le Monde did “frontier duty” by contrasting the different political, cultural and social contexts of the Western and Arabo-Islamic press. For example, Le Monde reported that when Jyllands-Posten published the controversial cartoons, interior ministers of the League of Arab States asked the Danish government to “severely punish” the authors of the controversial cartoons (Le Monde, 2006a; Tincq, 2006b). The newspaper also reported that Arab journalists and newspapers that called for calm, and made appeals to reason paid a heavy price, such as the editors-in-chief of two Jordanian newspapers arrested for publishing some of the cartoons. In Yemen, the newspaper Al-Houriya was suspended and its editor prosecuted, while in Morocco, the editor and a journalist of Al-Nahar Al Maghribi were charged with publishing the cartoons (Le Monde, 2006b).

In order to complete its border work, Le Monde highlighted the lack of freedom of speech and of the press in the Arabo-Islamic world, contrasting this with the religious neutrality and freedoms enjoyed by the Western press under secular democratic governments. To this end, Le Monde published a list of continental European newspapers that had chosen to republish the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, including virtually all major French newspapers (Santi, 2006a). However, this picture of journalistic freedom, courage and solidarity was tarnished when the owner of France Soir, Raymond Lakah, whom Le Monde described as a “Franco-Egyptian businessman,” fired his editor, Jacques Lefranc, for republishing the cartoons (Santi, 2006a). Le Monde‘s coverage implied that the villain of the France Soir story was a hyphenated Frenchman, probably more at ease with Arab-style repression than with French secular republicanism.

Le Monde also wrote extensively about Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that rekindled Muslim anger by republishing the controversial Danish cartoons one week after the rest of the European newspapers, and adding a cartoon of its own (Santi, 2006b). Again to show the gulf between the Western press and Muslims, Le Monde reported that several Muslim groups sought injunctions against republication of the Mohammad cartoons by Charlie Hebdo, or any other newspaper, claiming that the cartoons were racist and xenophobic. These applications, however, were dismissed by French courts (Santi, 2006b). In all, the boundary work by Le Monde left the impression of a big contrast between Western free speech values and Arabo-Islamic oppression.

A fourth theme in Le Monde‘s coverage involved actual journalistic paradigm repair. Though the newspaper defended Jyllands-Posten‘s right to publish the cartoons, and even republished two of them to defend freedom of speech, Le Monde indicated that Jyllands-Posten had not lived up to certain journalistic values, pointing out where the Danish newspaper had gone astray. In its first editorial supporting the right of the press to publish the Mohammad cartoons, Le Monde stated that Jyllands-Posten had made an unjust and hurtful amalgamation of Islam, terrorism, and suicide in some of the cartoons (Le Monde, 2006a). By implying that Islam was a religion of violence, terrorism and suicide, Jyllands-Posten indulged in what Amirou (2006, p. 18) called a “simplistic syllogism: … Islamic extremists plant bombs, Mohammad is a Muslim, so Mohammad is a terrorist?”

Indeed, most of the cartoonists invited by Le Monde to comment on the controversy thought that the Danish newspaper had gone too far when it directly connected, in some of the cartoons, Islam and terrorism (Herzberg et al., 2006). Kotek (2006), for example, suggested that by connecting Islam and terrorism, Jyllands-Posten betrayed its journalistic mission of drawing cartoons that reflect an exaggeration of the truth—rather than falsehood—in order to make the news easier to understand. However, these attempts at journalistic paradigm repair did not mean that Le Monde did not support the Danish newspaper’s right to publish.

The second sin of Jyllands-Posten evident in Le Monde‘s reporting was that the Danish newspaper—like most of the European press—indulged in double standards. Le Monde reported that Jyllands-Posten had refused to publish some cartoons critical of Christianity because it feared the reactions of Christians. Some Muslim commentators noted that Europe is very sensitive about anything that touches on the Jewish religion as well. Roy summarized the ethical shortcomings and double standards of Jyllands-Posten and by extension, the European press:

No respectable newspaper can publish an anti-Semitic interview … No mainstream newspaper would publish cartoons mocking blind people, midgets, homosexuals or Gypsies … But poor taste works with Islam, because public opinion is permeable to Islamophobia … What shocks the average Muslim is not the representation of the Prophet, but the existence of double standards. (2006, p. 18)

By highlighting the theme of the ethical lapses of Jyllands-Posten in most of its coverage of the Mohammad cartoons affair, Le Monde actively engaged in repairing the image of journalism. The newspaper clearly insinuated that Jyllands-Posten‘s ethical lapses and the troubles they ignited were avoidable, a result of journalistic insularity and lack of sophistication.

A fifth and final theme concentrated on the “border within the border.” Le Monde‘s aim was to separate true believers in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the rest, and the act of republication of the Mohammad cartoons became the litmus test. Le Monde reported that one of the ironies of the controversy was that it divided the West. The United States and Great Britain sided with Muslims, it claimed, while continental European countries had a more ambiguous attitude towards Muslims but came out clearly in support of freedom of speech and of the press (Le Monde, 2006c). Le Monde described a deep rift between European newspapers—many of which published the cartoons—and the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” press, which generally did not (Kauffmann, 2006; Lesnes, 2006; Roche, 2006; Santi, 2006a).

Le Monde explained this difference in terms of special political and social situations that pertain to Great Britain and the United States, but not to continental Europe. The “extreme reticence and caution” of the highly competitive, fire-eating British press, it claimed, was due to commercial and socio-political reasons:

Commercial considerations play a decisive role. Popular newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail have a non-negligible Muslim readership … the Muslim bourgeois classes read the serious press … Furthermore, this affair reflects the fragility of a multicultural society … Finally, the United Kingdom is a country that is still deeply influenced by religion … to the British, the greatest threat to the Anglican church … is not Islam, it is secularism. (Roche, 2006, p. 18)

Le Monde also built a boundary between Europeans and Americans, reporting that the United States showed political and journalistic ambivalence. In an article entitled, “Washington Sides with Muslims,” the newspaper reported that the cartoons had not been published in the United States for strategic and political reasons rather than for reasons of principle:

Coming from the country of the First Amendment, under which one can say and write almost anything one wishes, more so than in Europe, this reaction is surprising. But it comes from a country [the United States] where religious expression is increasingly part of public discourse and where the Fourth Estate role of the media has, in the last five years, been curtailed. (Kauffmann, 2006, p. 2)

In all, through these five journalistic strategies, the coverage in Le Monde was able to state principles and delineate boundaries of both culture and journalistic practice, while also separating true believers in free speech from those newspapers that supported free speech more in principle than in actual journalistic deed.

Paradigm Work at Arm’s Length: Coverage in The New York Times

At first thought, coverage of the Mohammed cartoon controversy by The New York Times seems an ideal situation for maintaining the journalistic paradigm, because the Times is the US standard bearer. News and opinion coverage in the Times did not turn out that way, though. In part, this was because the issue was foreign news, with a minimal connection to American media or media values. The issue had a low degree of cultural proximity given Europe’s more opinionated media and social climates. Geographically, it was also somewhat distant. The issue’s connection to the Middle East and a terrorism frame, though, kept it salient. Overall, the newspaper’s coverage appeared as a disinterested spectator: it was their news, not ours.

Six themes stood out in the coverage, most reflecting only a veiled effort at paradigm maintenance: (1) Danish immigration policy in relation to Muslim protests; (2) the sanctity of Danish (and European) freedom of speech; (3) separating Western media from Middle Eastern media; (4) the terrorism frame, with Middle Eastern people as an “other”; (5) Middle Eastern journalists who served as examples by challenging their dominant news paradigm; and (6) offering mild criticism that separated the Danish journalists from other European and US journalists. Except for the last theme, none raised Jyllands-Posten or journalistic freedom as a central part of the discussion.

By pointing out tensions from Middle Eastern immigrants in Denmark and other countries—the first theme—the Times coverage was able to create a boundary between a journalistic issue and a cultural issue. The suggestion of news coverage here was that even though the media were central to the conflict, it really just served to highlight the growing cultural conflict. By doing this, the news judgment of Jyllands-Posten was moved to the background. As the first Times story contextualized on January 8:

The cartoons were published amid the growth of an anti-immigrant sentiment in Denmark, reflected in the rise of the far-right Danish People’s Party. The party, which holds 13 percent of the seats in the Danish parliament, has helped to push through the toughest anti-immigration rules on the Continent, including a rule preventing Danish citizens age 24 or younger from bringing in spouses from outside. (Bilefsky, 2006a)

Arguing that it was a “far bigger story” than one about cartoons, another article described the situation as a “‘clash of civilizations’ between secular Western democracies and Islamic societies,” a statement that provided an ideological definition of the West as democratic while Islam was built on age-old societal traditions that refuse change or challenge from the outside (Cowell, 2006b). At risk, the article pointed out, is the degree that a “receiving culture” needs to “compromise” in order to incorporate these new immigrants. Two days later, that same reporter quoted a high-profile Danish Muslim woman, whose concerns were “pitting faith against newer, secular loyalties” (Cowell, 2006c). In sum, as long as the controversy could be focused on cultural strains, journalistic discretion would not be part of the question, but instead an act that exemplified a society’s woes. In terms of the journalistic paradigm, no repair work was needed because a boundary had been built that kept it separate.

The second theme follows from the first, posing freedom of speech against dogmatic beliefs. The Danish editor who approved publication of the cartoons spoke strongly about free speech rights, regardless of perspective:

“Muslims should be allowed to burn the Danish flag in a public square if that’s within the boundaries of the law,” he said. “Though I think it would be a strange signal to the Danish people who have hosted them.” (Bilefsky, 2006a)

An editorial written by a Florida International University professor made explicit that this issue was directed toward maintaining Denmark as a tolerant and open-minded society. The reason for publication of the cartoons, he argued, was to move free speech to a public forum, not to make a statement about Islam:

This is what it means today to put self-censorship “on the agenda”: the particular object of that censorship … is a matter of indifference. What is important is not the content of what is expressed but that it be expressed. (Fish, 2006)

Casting the issue this way suggests that the intent was to test free speech and self-censorship through a controversial topic, with no real interest in the issue of Islam and integration on its own. That is, the writer explained that it was problematic for a person not of a certain religion to be held to that religion’s taboos: in this case, to refrain from publishing cartoons of Mohammed. Surprisingly, the issue of free speech by the Danish (or European) media was not connected to free speech in the United States.

For this second theme, then, placing philosophies about free speech against Muslim sensitivities about a specific issue once again removed the discussion from the journalistic paradigm. As with the first theme, a boundary was created between media and society, so that the journalistic paradigm remained above question.

The third theme involved creation of a boundary between the principled, democratic media of the West and the dogmatic, government-controlled media of the Middle East. This theme was only minimally developed, interfaced with the theme about exemplary journalists, but viewed from the opposite position. Thus, a Syrian announcement about withdrawing its ambassador to Denmark was attributed to SANA, the “Syrian state news agency” (Cowell, 2006b). Another article told of how a Yemeni journalist had become a fugitive after escaping arrest and explained that the king of Jordan felt compelled to jail journalists printing “blasphemous cartoons” because his family is directly descended from Mohammed (Slackman and Fattah, 2006):

“If freedom of the press affects national unity in a tribal system with high levels of illiteracy, one has to consider how far it can go,” said Yemen’s foreign minister, Dr. Abu Bakr al Qirbi. “All societies have red lines.”

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized the European newspapers’ freedom of speech, offering an example that highlighted the explicit ideology of his thinking:

“If your newspapers are free, why do they not publish anything about the innocence of the Palestinians and protest against the crimes committed by the Zionists?” the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted him as saying. (Gall and Smith, 2006)

Later in that same article, it was mentioned that a newspaper editor “affiliated with the Iranian Basiji militia, which organized the protest” had arrived to calm protestors it had initially encouraged, asking them to “stop throwing firebombs.” An editorial piece in the Times’ arts section mentioned that an Iranian daily newspaper had launched a contest for the “best cartoon about the Holocaust” (Kimmelman, 2006). And following a meeting of leaders of 57 Muslim nations in Mecca, a news item explained that the event “drew minimal international press coverage,” a sharp contrast with the media from within those countries:

In some countries, like Syria and Iran, that meant heavy press coverage in official news media and virtual government approval of demonstrations that ended with Danish embassies in flames. (Fattah, 2006a)

Overall, then, this theme highlighted the state control of Middle East media, with journalists needing to either report the official position or risk jail. By emphasizing that Middle East media are simply government mouthpieces, these stories imply that Western media are different journalistically, following the “correct” paradigm. Again, a boundary was built that maintained the journalistic paradigm through the act of not questioning it.

The fourth theme shows how the terrorism frame was used along with portraying Middle Eastern people as an “other” to place blame their way while removing Jyllands-Posten‘s actions from question. One element of this theme centered on assaults on Danish and European buildings in Gaza. On January 30, an article reported that “about a dozen gunmen demanded an apology from the Danish government and fired automatic rifles in the air in front of the European Union office” (Fattah, 2006a). A few days later, the situation had escalated, as the Times described gunmen “firing automatic weapons and spray-painting a warning on the outside gate” (Smith and Fisher, 2006). These warnings soon turned to violence:

In Gaza, Palestinians marched through the streets, storming European buildings and burning German and Danish flags. Protestors smashed the windows of the German cultural center and threw stones at the European Commission building, the police said. (Associated Press, 2006)

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a German man was accidentally kidnapped by “two masked gunmen” after mistakenly being thought to be French or Danish. In all, these articles portrayed Palestinians as fanatic, violent and not too bright.

A second element of this theme suggested that protests and violence were not truly motivated by principle but by the opportunity for a Middle Eastern country to appear oppressed and unite its people behind that oppression. Essentially, articles drawing on this theme suggested that the protests—highly unusual for some countries—were calculated to “undercut the appeal of the West” while also competing politically with citizens beginning to align politically with Islamic-linked movements. One article quoted an Egyptian political scientist:

“The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists,” said Mr. Said, the Cairo political scientist. “Syria made an even worse miscalculation,” he added, alluding to the sense that the protest had gotten out of hand. The issue of the cartoons came at a critical time in the Muslim world because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and a sense that Muslims were under siege. (Fattah, 2006b)

Similar ideas came from an article about spreading protests that explained “Iran, for example, is facing international pressure to halt its nuclear program, and Syria has been isolated internationally since the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister” (Gall and Smith, 2006). An editorial addressed the calculated nature of the uprising directly, characterizing it as “an almost-forgotten incident [that] has been dredged up to score points with the public during politically sensitive times” (Editorial Desk, 2006).

Regarding depiction of violence and terrorism, quite a few examples appeared that helped portray the Middle East as a chaotic region. One common element involved death threats (Bilefsky, 2006a), bomb threats (Cowell, 2006a) and execution (Slackman and Fattah, 2006), at times presented in juxtaposition with the cartoon with Mohammed wearing a bomb/turban (Associated Press, 2006) or mention of a Dutch film producer killed after making a movie critical of Islamic society. Yet other articles interfaced mention of Islam and terrorism (Bilefsky, 2006c; Cowell, 2006d; Smith and Fisher, 2006). Put together, the effect was to make Islam and the Middle East appear unreasonable and reactionary in their responses to the cartoons. Again, Jyllands-Posten‘s publication of the cartoons was not questioned, with blame placed on people from an unreasonable Other world.

fifth theme supported Western journalism while also condemning Middle Eastern journalism by examples of a few Middle Eastern journalists who dared to disagree with the dominant Islamic position. This theme was highlighted in an article about the plight of several journalists (Slackman and Fattah, 2006). It pointed out how 11 journalists in five countries were facing prosecution for printing the cartoons. One writer commented on the chill to free speech:

“I keep hearing, ‘Why are liberals silent?’” said Said al Ashmawy, an Egyptian judge and author of books on political Islam. “How can we write? Who is going to protect me? Who is going to publish for me in the first place? With the Islamization of the society, the list of taboos has been increasing daily. You should not write about religion. You should not write about politics or women. Then what is left?”

Another example told of two journalists with an Egyptian weekly that published the cartoons and a criticism in October, shortly after the controversy began to boil. By showing the contrast between these journalists and the rest, the article suggested that Western freedom of speech was an ideal hung onto by a rare few willing to suffer for their principles. Once again, the Western journalistic paradigm was valorized and separated from that of the Middle East.

Finally, a sixth theme offered a glimpse of the usual paradigm repair process, where either an individual or a media organization was separated from the media institution. Even then, the scolding and vilifying were relatively weak: the situation was depicted as just a minor infraction. One editorial—the usual forum for paradigm repair—described Jyllands-Posten‘s publication of the cartoons as “juvenile” yet still within speech protected by the First Amendment (Editorial Desk, 2006). The piece then describe a more appropriate action:

The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation’s news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words.

This excerpt built a clear division between borderline journalistic behavior and behavior considered exemplary. It demonstrated how a mature media organization would deal with the delicate situation. Similarly, the Times’ arts desk called the cartoons “callous and feeble,” something designed only to “score cheap points” regarding free speech (Kimmelman, 2006). Another news item also subtly separated Jyllands-Posten‘s act from the principle involved, leading with a reference to the Danish prime minister’s support of the ideal that was “distanced from the newspaper’s decision” to publish the cartoons (Cowell, 2006a). At the same time, these gentle criticisms were tempered with the point from European commentators that regardless of the tastelessness involved, “conservative Muslims must learn to accept Western standards of free speech” (Smith and Fisher, 2006).

A few articles also gave Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor, a mild scolding. One discussed several mistakes about possibly publishing Holocaust cartoons and satirical cartoons about Christians and Jews drawn by Muslim cartoonists (Bilefsky, 2006b). Another article mentioned Rose’s announced “indefinite leave of absence” from the paper, suggesting he had erred, yet drawing on his shock that Danes had become “objects of hate” (Bilefsky, 2006c). An opinion piece the next day reminded that “Rose may think of himself … as being neutral with respect to religion,” casting him as a member of “the religion we call liberalism” (Fish, 2006).

Despite these criticisms of the Danish newspaper and its editor, real paradigm repair did not take place. Instead, they were simply moved a little farther away from the mainstream press, retaining their basic legitimacy and a standing invitation to return to the fold of the mainstream. Overall, the thrust of coverage by the Times was to re-affirm and re-present the paradigm when a clear opportunity became available.


The Mohammad cartoon affair was perceived in continental Europe as a challenge to journalism, journalistic paradigms and Western free speech ideologies. In the United States and Great Britain, it was viewed at worst as a naïve and as a sophomoric breach of journalistic ethics at best. The first research question asked how paradigm work surfaced in Le Monde and The New York Times. Surprisingly, The New York Times and Le Monde covered many of the same issues, but used their coverage to communicate different journalistic and cultural messages. In The New York Times, coverage was relatively tangential because the controversy was reported as a distant international incident. This was not “our” news, but “their” news and just the facts would suffice. Le Monde, in contrast, reported the controversy as an affair in which it had a stake. As such, Le Monde used its coverage of the global controversy to re-present and re-state fundamental universal human rights, and French secular republican principles. Additionally, Le Monde triangulated an ideological boundary between the West and the Arabo-Islamic countries on matters of freedom of speech and of the press. Finally, Le Monde delineated a frontier between continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon democracies of Britain and the United States.

Re-presentation of journalistic principles and triangulation of boundaries was not prominent in The New York Times coverage. Most of these boundaries were clear enough because of differences in geography, language and culture with both Europe and the Middle East. Even journalistic positions and cultural values stood apart clearly between America and the others. Much of the coverage thus focused on disturbances either in or from the Muslim world, a world that had caused problems for the United States through the September 11 attacks and the Iraq war. Although maintenance of the journalistic paradigm was a subtext to most of this coverage, the effect was subtle. The American press system—centered more on freedom of information than on freedom of expression—was not threatened by the Mohammed cartoon controversy, either. As much as anything, the cartoons offered a chance to re-present US ideology toward terrorism and the Middle East.

The second research question asked how differences in national culture played a role in the paradigm work that appeared in the two newspapers. Le Monde was clearly in the thick of the fight. It was a “journal engagé” (an engaged newspaper) facing an issue central to French society: the drive for a unified culture free from the dictates of religion. In doing so, Le Monde republished two of the cartoons and added one of its own. Republication of the cartoons by French newspapers made the country a side-show in the huge drama that started in Denmark. Proximity—both geographic and cultural—was clearly a factor here. Additionally, the controversy seized the public imagination because of the large Muslim population in France and the cultural tensions that tend to arise. In contrast, the United States has a relatively smaller and more low-key Muslim population. Ideologically, values of religion have been more in the forefront of American public discourse, while freedom of expression has seen a degree of repression in the dawn of the 21st century.

Although journalistic paradigms are the center of this discussion, national culture cannot be separated from the American and French paradigms. In this case, national difference is key to understanding the journalistic paradigm differences that surfaced in each newspaper’s coverage. Particularly, contrasting cultural beliefs about religion and multiculturalism interacted with ideals about freedom of expression and public debate, and created a clear difference in the way that the ritual of paradigm repair unfolded.

Thus, one of the main contributions of this article is to demonstrate the importance of national/cultural differences in journalism, highlighting the utility of this vantage point for understanding why the same event can be covered differently in different countries. Examining the French case alone would detect a visible paradigm process at work, but one that could not be clearly understood by American readers unfamiliar with the nuances of French culture. The American case, if studied on its own, might not reveal paradigm work taking place at all. By analyzing both cases together, the relationship between journalism and the culture in which it is enmeshed becomes clear: there is no single journalistic paradigm, nor even a dominant Western journalistic paradigm. As is demonstrated, the longstanding richness of culture is hard at work. Although the sacred right of freedom of speech surfaced in both cases, the concerns underlying that right grow from different roots as does the rite designed to maintain its existence.