Matches to Muhammad

The line between simply being incendiary and inspiring debate depends on context and tact.

Karl Noyes

As Editorials and Opinions editor, I read every comment sent to the Daily concerning the Editorials and Opinions pages. The most common questions of the past two weeks touched on my decisions to not publish the controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons and to continue to publish John Hoffís columns. Readers have asked for explanations, and I am compelled to respond.

This month, student newspapers at Harvard and the University of Illinois, among others, decided to reprint the cartoons that have attracted worldwide attention to their ability to inflame passions. While I always lean on the side of publication, I chose not to publish the Muhammad cartoons for several reasons.

The goal of any serious, published opinion is to inspire debate. A healthy debate already was under way in the Daily when other college newspapers decided to republish the Muhammad cartoons. From the start, Daily readers decided to focus on the cartoon controversy and exchanges over freedom of speech, Islamophobia and media representation were and are carried out in the opinions pages. There was no need as editors of other college papers claimed to ìinspire debate.î The publication of the Muhammad cartoons only would have hindered debate bringing the focus not on the issues themselves but upon the administration at the Daily.

Secondly, the cartoons were and are easily accessible online. Republishing the Muhammad cartoons would have taken the space reserved for fresh columns as well as been an act far outside the standard practices of the opinions pages. It is not the job of the opinions pages to present news but rather to provide an arena for debate. Like other issues, students seeking more depth could have found their information elsewhere. Just as people can debate the practices at Abu Ghraib prison and the deaths in Iraq without visceral images, so can they debate issues surrounding the Muhammad cartoons.

Lastly, the republication of the cartoons frames the debate in terms of the cartoons and misses the larger context in which the cartoons appeared. This is fine if an opinion piece says that, but it is a dereliction of duty if a newspaper chooses to frame the debate in this way. Sadly, many media outlets failed in presenting the deep emotional and economic issues surrounding Muslims in Europe and basic beliefs.

The publication of the Muhammad cartoons in the Daily would have been an incendiary act, an act not done to inspire debate but rather to incite hatred and needlessly disparage.

This brings us to John Hoff. Hoff in his brief time at the Daily has provoked more response from the University readership than any other recent Daily columnist in my memory.

So who is John Hoff? Hoff, to say the least, has been many things: father, Dumpster-diving guru, military psych tech, reporter, archivist, city council member. But above all, Hoff is an advocate activist; this is the primary reason I hired him.

From Aramark to Zerby, Hoff has addressed issues that are of concern to University students. Certainly Hoffís columns are mixed with a fleshy dose of ego, but Hoffís concern for the issues is readily apparent.

Readers tend to love or hate Hoff, which I expected when I hired him. Unexpected, however, was the mass response a Hoff column tends to receive.

Some have argued that Hoffís columns on local politician Paul Zerby and North Dakota were incendiary and held no value for the University community.

I disagreed and published Hoffís columns knowing that, though they were provocative and seemingly discombobulated, they were a value to the University community. Has Paul Zerby been good for students? Does North Dakota foster cultural deficiencies? Does the University care more about Aramark contracts than about students? These are all important and debatable opinions Hoff has raised through his writing.

How did I decide that republication of Muhammad cartoons is incendiary and Hoffís previous columns were merely inspiring debate?

Unfortunately, such a straight question cannot get such a straight answer. I have made it my goal to publish guest submissions and hire columnists with the best potential to inspire debate. The difference between an incendiary act and a debate-inspiring act can be blurred, and decisions have to be made based on experience.

I have worked nearly four years in the Editorials and Opinions department, having participated, witnessed and read hundreds of topical dialogues. As I have pointed out, there was no overwhelming need to publish the Muhammad cartoons. To have done so would not have been an act of freedom of speech but rather an act of sabotage. While Hoffís columns could have been a tad more tactful, they needed to be published to inspire the debate they did.

You as the reader place a certain level of trust in me that I will publish in a fair manner. The opinions pages have reflected the extent the Daily readership is willing to participate. Submissions that respond in disagreement over something previously published are especially welcome and considered. There is no agenda here except for that of positive change and debate. If you feel your voice needs to be heard, please submit a guest column to my e-mail below. The Daily accepts comments at [email protected]

Karl Noyes is the Editorials and Opinions editor. He welcomes comments at [email protected]