Freedom of the press is not freedom from responsibility

The Danish Cartoon mess reminds me of why I wanted to go back to school in the first place.

I usually explain it this way: Freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not, in any way shape or form, negate one’s freedom to be an asshole.

I decided to go to graduate school after I became disillusioned with an amoral entertainment industry. No one was taking any responsibility for the effect our work was having on society, but we kept grinding away at our jobs, earning our paychecks — and I’m thankful that we did. I made plenty of student loan payments with what I earned working on music videos and commercials. (Okay, so I bought a lot of records, too, but my personal fiscal responsibility is not in play here.)

It struck me that at no point in my formal art/craft school experience did I sit through a single lecture on ethics. We were supposed to be artists, and no one thought to teach us about being responsible for what we put on the screen. Any moral instruction came only from outraged classmates, and even that was dampened by the feeling that we were artists, and thus free to offend as we pleased.

Now look, I’m no prude in any sense of the word, and I can take a nasty cartoon as well as the next guy, but there’s a large gap between using a political cartoon as a way to fuel discussion (see Tom Toles) and using it to throw newsprint on fire.

We’ve seen this sort of cartoon before — demonizing a race of people, pointing them out as the scapegoat for the ills of society, generalizing the attitudes of a minority to the whole race. We saw it in Holocaust-era Germany. Were these “just cartoons?”

As journalists, it is our right to print, for the most part, whatever we want. That doesn’t mean we should.

The editors who signed off on the Danish cartoons might have thought they were doing something altruistic, spurring on debate about free speech and expression. Perhaps it would have been wise to look at those cartoons one last time before going to press.

Perhaps it would have been wise to think “Now where have I seen something like this before?”

[tags] newspapers, journalism, media ethics, political cartoons, cartoons[/tags]