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December 14, 2006

Reuters CEO Glocer: The Danish Cartoons Were An Internet-Fueled Phenomenon

I was initially going to pair this E&P report on a blog posting of a speech by Reuters head honcho Tom Glocer that referenced the Danish Cartoons Controversy with an entry above on the spiraling downward of the newspaper business model in a meta-business two-fer. It works that way. There's definitely a lot in the speech that might make your average Internet-news user suddenly vomit on their keyboard. And there's a lot more that could lead to 10,000 "Ho, ho"-style commentaries, such as the fact that the report will probably find a greater audience because it's in the CEO's blog than it would if it were published through his media company's print arm.

But then I read his take on the Danish Cartoons Controversy:
This is an important point. Take the Prophet Mohammed cartoons controversy. There is no more local. In the past, if a small Danish newspaper published a set of provocative cartoons, the rest of the world would only see them if distinguished editors -- like those in the room today -- decided to republish them.

In this case, most professional news organizations decided to hold back. But it made no difference. Across the world people who wanted to incite the masses did just that -- via the internet.

The cartoons published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten brought about a violent demonstration in Pakistan, deaths in Afghanistan and Somalia, and attacks on embassies in Syria and Lebanon. A barrier had not just been overcome -- it has been smashed to pieces.

News and pictures also transcend national and other boundaries. And so, broadcasters and publishers who want to survive have to understand the new model.

Tom Glocer surely knows more about media than I know about anything, but this strikes me as self-serving and a huge reach, if not just flat-out wrong and a bit unsavory.

First, the Danish Cartoons controversy didn't break worldwide on the Internet. It was initially reported on in print when local political forces objected to the stunt -- a legitimate story given certain tensions in Europe -- and then mostly forgotten. It came back not because citizen journalists or, really, any specific instance of Internet-related agitation, but mostly because a group of Danish imams traveled and pressed on a series of specific political and cultural points relating to the cartoons, points which were adopted and built upon by other political players in a variety of ways in a variety of locations before they broke in January/February 2006. I never heard in the hundreds of press articles I read on the matter that there was a significant on-line component to the distribution of or objection to the publication of Muhammed caricatures, let alone that this was a component that can be casually asserted as a main cause. As the violence developed, even, it was the re-publication of the cartoons in other print media that added fuel to the political fire, not this site's re-publication of them back in October 2005 or that of The Brussels Journal, say, throughout.

At best you can say that the Internet was likely one of the tools used by those involved to pass information along, like some viciously antagonistic faked cartoons added to the real batch. But it's a real stretch to work that back into a comparative media critique, and should have no place there. At that point, you might as well blame the resulting violence on Photoshop.

Second, the actions of traditional media outlets when the story broke can be tracked, has been tracked, and was for the most part fearful, inarticulate and, in the end, deeply unfortunate. That anyone in Tom Glocer's position can propagate such a simplistic version of those events without a lot of people seriously objecting is in itself an indictment of how poorly that story's political aspects were reported by the mainstream press -- before, during and after. Even more obviously, the story wasn't fully reported by the bulk of those outlets in a significant, obvious way. While I think journalistic stunts to prove political points are terrible policy, and the original publication of the cartoons was asinine and ill-considered, once something becomes news of the type where interpretation is a key point in violence that kills people and you're a press person, you have to inform even if it risks insult. You do so with a heavy heart, but you do it. And traditional print media, by and large, abandoned the field and didn't inform their readers to the best of their ability. Many of those readers turned to on-line sources, but not all of them, and the mythic status granted those dumb cartoons by this lack of community knowledge will likely give the shameful, tragic violence from earlier this year a veneer of cultural legitimacy for years to come, something it doesn't deserve. That's not traditional journalism versus citizen journalism, or an issue of trust, or an issue of first hand access versus remove. That's just failing to show up.
posted 11:28 pm PST | Permalink

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