The interweb is buzzing about last night's South Park episode. Did Comedy Central forbid creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker from showing an image of Muhammad? In the episode, Kyle, one of the show's main characters, persuades network executives to run a Family Guy cartoon with a short scene including Muhammad. Kyle gives a speech about the importance of free speech. The Volokh Conspiracy, which broke the story, quoted Kyle's speech, which ended:
"If you don't show [Muhammad], then you've made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn't. Either it's all OK or none of it is. Do the right thing."
At the point in the episode where Muhammad is supposed to be shown, the South Park creators inserted two statements:
In this shot, [Muhammad] hands a football helmet to Family Guy.
Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of [Muhammad] on their network.
Eventually (spoiler alert!) Al Qaeda broadcasts its own cartoon showing Americans, President Bush and Jesus defacating on each other and the American flag. You know, say what you want about them, Stone and Parker sure know how to embarrass their own network.
Many blogs have been up in pixels about the censorship, but it looks like David Bauder of the Associated Press is the first mainstream reporter to cover the issue. He also provided a bit of historical context about how the show came to be written:
In an elaborately constructed two-part episode of their Peabody Award-winning cartoon, "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper's publishing of caricatures of Muhammad. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.
A brief interjection here to point out that AP reporter gives the impression that Muslims are unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous. That's not true. And while many reporters, myself included, repeated this untruth, Bauder has had a few months to learn from our mistakes. It is not acceptable for reporters to repeat this talking point without acknowledging reality. The 1514 picture I used here is The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.
And if you are going to say that Muslims find representations of their prophet to be blasphemous, why not mention what Christians think of portraying their divine Savior in such a disrespectful manner? Do they think not think it's blasphemous? Is it the notion of blasphemy that is the undercurrent to this story? Or is it the threat of violence? Okay, back to our story:
When the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers worldwide in January and February, it sparked a wave of protests primarily in Islamic countries.
Parker and Stone were angered when told by Comedy Central several weeks ago that they could not run an image of Muhammad, according to a person close to the show who didn't want to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity.
The network's decision was made over concerns for public safety, the person said.
Comedy Central said in a statement issued Thursday: "In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision." Its executives would not comment further.
Wow. And wow. There can be no question that an image of Jesus defacating on flags and President Bush during Holy Week is blasphemous and offensive. So how to explain Comedy Central's decision? Especially considering that Comedy Central used to show Muhammad images with vigor? I certainly hope that my journalistic brethren will investigate this with rigor.
I'm a bad prognosticator of these things, and increasingly cynical, but I worry that this story will just go away. And I worry the media will simply acquiesce to violent demands rather than uphold the virtue of tolerance of all perspectives -- including offensive ones like South Park's. We're kidding ourselves if we think that there is much of a difference between the cowardly decision of almost every mainstream newspaper, including the standard-bearing New York Times, to hide the news (that is, the cartoon images of Muhammad which sparked the violent and fatal riots by some Muslims across the globe) and Comedy Central's decision.