The controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad continues to dominate the news, as does the debate on whether or not newspapers should publish the cartoons. Yesterday, the editorial staff of the New York Press resigned in protest after they were “ordered at the 11th hour to pull the now-infamous Danish cartoons from an issue dedicated to them,” according to the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Harry Siegel. As AAN editors and publishers try to determine if this is an issue of free speech, religious intolerance or cultural misunderstanding, many of them have become targets of at least one mass e-mail campaign calling on them to publish the cartoons. RightMarch.com, a group formed in March 2003 “to counter the well-financed antics of radical left-wing groups like MoveOn.org” seems to be the source of the majority of these e-mails. They recently published an alert, “Support Freedom of the Press for ALL People: Tell the American Media to Publish Danish Cartoons!” which asks people “to send YOUR letters to local and national media, asking them to publish the cartoons in solidarity with the people of free Europe and in support of the concept of freedom of the press.” At the bottom of the Web page, there is a “Take Action Now” link where users simply type in their ZIP codes for a list of media outlets in their areas. (For instance, a Washington, D.C., ZIP code generates 35 media contacts that begin with the letter “A,” including AARP The Magazine, Arts & Culture Funding Report, and Associated Baptist Press.) Users may choose any combination of outlets on the list, and they also can edit the text of their messages. The e-mails received by AAN members Baltimore City Paper, Folio Weekly and Cincinnati City Beat were all identical in content, although they had different subject lines (subject lines are not filled in by RightMarch’s automated service). Wade Dukes, a Florida resident who sent a RightMarch-generated message titled “I Thought You Were the Media?” to Folio Weekly in Jacksonville, told AAN News he “does not send a letter for every Action Alert received.” He says he is “not a mindless robot” and “not a hate-monger,” but is “amazed that our media bows to the Muslims.” The RightMarch letter claims, among other things, that the Christian religion and Christian leaders are “portrayed in unflattering, even blasphemous, ways by secularists in the mainstream media … ALL THE TIME in America.” When asked to provide a concrete example of this claim, Dukes cites media “condemnation” of the Religious Right and the movie The Passion of the Christ, as well as “a television show concerning a pastor that was very much anti-religion.” (NBC’s The Book of Daniel.) Mass e-mail campaigns are certainly not a new phenomenon. Many different groups across the political spectrum use form letters sent out through their e-mail lists as a way to push their agendas. However, these letters don’t break through the e-mail or fax clutter at most alternative newsweeklies. Lee Gardner, editor of Baltimore City Paper, says he usually just deletes the e-mails he recognizes as clearly generated by interest groups. When asked if mass e-mailing may be a case of the medium trumping the message, Gardner says “Without a doubt. If a dozen or more readers wrote passionate letters about a particular issue, each with their own distinct arguments, concerns, and issues, I’d have to take that seriously at some level. But this kind of thing doesn’t even merit a ‘nice try.'” Chris Potter, editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, says that he’s “been getting a bunch” of the RightMarch e-mails,” but he “feels no compulsion” to run them. “I don’t see that I’m striking a blow for ‘freedom of speech’ by printing something I don’t really want to say. I’d feel like I was letting fanatics dictate my content,” says Potter. Even though he hasn’t gotten any e-mails about the cartoons, Illinois Times’ Editor Roland Klose says he does get a lot of form-generated letters on other subjects, most recently about the Samuel Alito hearings and the War in Iraq, including “updates about ‘progress’ we’re making there, usually over the name of a soldier,” many of which were exposed in 2003 as being written not by soldiers but by commanding officers. Klose echoes Gardner in that he “prefers to get correspondence that deals with stories we’ve published,” although he occasionally has fun with the mass e-mail campaigns, like when he “published two almost identical form letters — signed by two different people — in the same edition.”
Alt-Weeklies Weigh in on the Cartoon Controversy:Boston Phoenix: World of pain: The space between free speech and respect in the ultimate culture war
Boston’s Weekly Dig: I’ll kill you if you don’t stop offending my peace-loving God!
Philadelphia Weekly: Editor’s Note: Laugh Riot
Reno News & Review: Comic Riots
Seattle Weekly: The Muhammad Cartoon War
The Stranger: The West Needs to Realize This Is About More Than Free Speech and Fundamentalists Have a Problem With Freedom (contains the cartoons)