Printing what’s offensive: Dunham, Noah, Connecticut College and Charlie Hebdo.

Whenever there is a story about someone who does something deemed by some people as being offensive, there follows reliably logical response.

What is it? What did he or she, do, say, write, draw or sing? Can I read it, see it or hear it somewhere?

And then one finds what they regard as their comfortable, authoritative news source and, more often than not, they can readily find out what all the gasping and fussing is about.

And then, in the same comfortable, authoritative news source one can read articles, columns, think pieces along with the offending material.

It’s all presented in a tidy package. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

In the past two weeks, that banal scenario played out in separate kerfuffles involving the writer-actor Lena Dunham,  comedian and incoming “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah and Andrew Pessin, a professor at Connecticut College.

In the March 30 issue of The New Yorker,  Dunham wrote an undercooked piece for the magazine’s humor section, “Shouts and Murmurs,” called “ Dog or Jewish Boyfriend: A Quiz”

The column is a list of situations that invite a guess as whether they would better ascribed to a Jewish boyfriend or indeed a dog.

After it appeared online, it  was criticized by some as being offensive to Jews with the most prominent attack coming from  Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman.  Shortly after, Dunham received a throaty defense from New Yorker editor David Remnick after the controversy started zipping around Twitter.

On March 30, Comedy Central named Johannesburg native Trevor Noah as the successor to Jon Stewart on their flagship  “The Daily Show.”  Near universal praise on the Monday was then followed by rancor on the Tuesday, as journalists using that keen J-school-approved investigative tool — the search box on Twitter– found that Noah wrote some jokes making fun of Jews and women, that yes, offended some people.

Perhaps due to the role “The Daily Show,” occupies as the most popular televised fount of American political satire,   Noah spent an unpleasant day in the internet interrogation room, with the promise of more to come.

On March 26, students at Connecticut College,  located in  New London, Conn., my old hometown,  petitioned the school administration to denounce Pessin for a Facebook post that compared residents of Gaza to “chained pit-bulls.” The controversy led to campus-wide forums and plenty of commentary in the student-run newspaper and elsewhere, notably Slate.  Pessin has now gone on leave for the remainder of the spring semester.

Apart from some of the subject matter, what unites these three examples, is that in each case news sites the world over presented examples of the supposedly offensive material in their stories.

There were quotes lifted from Dunham’s piece and Noah and Pessin’s posts were embedded in the online versions of the stories.

Good, right.

Expedient, even.

He said what? Oh that. She said what? Oh that. Oh, dear.

But as you might recall, similar reprinting of supposedly offensive material did not happen after the Charlie Hebdo murders in January.

Papers no less that The New York Times and blogs such as Salon did not show readers in their pages, print or digital, the cartoons of Mohammed that inspired fanatics to kill writers and artists.

Now, to be fair, they did describe the cartoons, but they didn’t show in their pages the actual images, which are the crux of the matter.

Well, what is the difference?

Is it because Charlie Hebdo’s drawings are somehow more offensive, than what Dunham, Noah and Pessin wrote?

Is it purely a matter of an editorial board choosing to print whatever they would like?

Certainly, that’s what Salon editor David Daley told comedian Patton Oswalt in an  article published on March 11.  Daley found the Charlie Hebdo drawings to be objectionable  and felt he was under no obligation to print them. As he put it:

“Supporting your right to publish does not mean I surrender my own right to decide what to publish. The ACLU supported the KKK’s right to march in Skokie. They didn’t go join them.”

It’s a reasonable,  I think defensible position.

Newspapers deciding what they want to do without any interference from anyone, least of all the government, is sacrosanct in the United States. To barricades, if not, right?

Is it because cartoons are an image and we respond differently to images than we do text? That seems self-evident, but how does that work when deciding what goes into a newspaper or news site?

Or is it that the reprinting of the Mohammed cartoons could result in violence toward staff members and associates of said news organization?

That was reasoning editors and news directors took in 2005  when they decided not reprint or broadcast cartoons that ran in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

And, yes, there could be violent reprisals.

Or as Daley wrote in Salon,  “That’s not cowardice, it’s thinking through consequences and cycles.”

In January, in Paris, there were “consequences.”

Now, we can go column-to-column, post-to-post in the papers and blogs, about Dunham, Noah, and Pessin.

We can debate if some jokes are funny, or demeaning, or just stupid, and we do so fearlessly.

We can dialogue.

We can have national conversations, or better still international conversations.

And that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But violence, with us, there’s always violence.




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