As you may have heard, the New York Press, which publishes my weekly column, has once again lost the top of its masthead. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Harry Siegel, resigned Tuesday evening along with three other editors, to protest his publisher’s decision not to republish cartoons that prompted furious, sometimes violent Muslim reaction throughout Europe and the Mideast. (Here’s a Reuters story and a Gawker item summarizing what happened.)
Being a freelancer who files via email and rarely visits the office, I don’t know anything about the political dynamics inside the paper. I can only say I’ve known Harry a few months, long enough to respect his intelligence and good humor and to deduce that he wasn’t a showboating, storm-the-barricades-for-the-publicity type. Based on his resignation letter—reprinted in a New York Observer blog item headlined ”New York Press kills cartoons: staff walks out”—I see no reason to revise either part of that opinion.
“We have no desire to be free speech martyrs,” Harry wrote, “...but it would have been nakedly hypocritical to avoid the same cartoons we’d criticized others for not running, cartoons that however absurdly have inspired arson, kidnapping and murder and forced cartoonists in at least two continents to go into hiding. Editors have already been forced to leave papers in Jordan and France for having run these cartoons. We have no illusions about the power of the Press (NY Press, we mean), but even on the far margins of the world-historical stage, we are not willing to side with the enemies of the values we hold dear, a free press not least among them.”
I do not agree that it was necessary to republish a gallery of culturally incendiary cartoons on newsprint and distribute them free all over New York City in order to be able to properly analyze them, or editorialize about them—especially not in the era of the Internet, which enables a newspaper to publish, say, one small, representative cartoon, then link to a vast gallery of other examples on a web site. (To see the verboten cartoons, click here.)
And there’s an element of disingenuous right wing piling-on in the U.S. reaction that’s disturbing in its own way, a chest-thumping swagger typified by this remark from the comments section of the New York Observer’s Politicker item on the New York Press incident. “The press in the Arab world is filled with vulgar anti-semitic cartoons making light of the Holocaust and pushing the blood libel. Now they riot when someone dares to give them a taste of their own medicine. I saw some Arab ’scholar’ on the news saying that the West is ’provoking’ Muslims by publishing these cartoons. A real provocation would be a group of Christians and Jews doing to Mecca what a group of Muslim terrorists did to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11.” With supporters like these, Harry doesn’t need enemies.
That said, I applaud Harry’s mathematically simple reasoning, I acknowledge his titanium cojones, and I understand his desire not to be seen as a hypocrite after slagging other papers for not having the guts to publish those cartoons. And I’ve got to say, it’s hilarious to see the publishers invoking a code of conduct after doing without one for 18 years. My alternative weekly pays its bills with hooker ads and never shied away from explicit language and sexual content. During the impeachment scandal, it published an editorial cartoon showing Bill Clinton butt-fucking a jacknifed Uncle Sam whose ass was smeared with blood and shit. The paper was, and still is, a Hobbesian First Amendment playground. So the notion of its owners suddenly coming down with the vapors is pretty rich. I’m guessing the skittishness came from memories of the last religion-centered New York Press scandal, a Catholic baiting jokefest that claimed columnist Matt Taibbi and editor Jeff Koyen.
I first heard about Cartoongate Tuesday afternoon when I phoned Harry long distance from a family vacation to Florida to correct an error in a review of The Fallen Idol—I had reflexively mistyped Carol Reed’s first name as Carroll, as in the Black Stallion director Ballard—and the always unflappable Mr. Siegel told me he was sorry but he couldn’t help because he was in the process of drafting a resignation letter, and would it be all right if he transferred me to the art department so they could at least try to fix it on the proof? (The error was fixed in print but not online, where it stands as a marginal testament to that strange day.) I called twice on Wednesday to see if I could find out anything more. I was told by a receptionist that there was no one in the editorial offices, that there were rumors that the publisher and editors were in a meeting, but the rest was a question mark.
I don’t know what the future holds for the newspaper or its staffers and freelancers. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.