The terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo has placed on cartoons and the journalists who produce them a media spotlight that the trade rarely has seen. While The Daily Beast has been unwavering in its decision to publish the work produced by the French satirical newspaper, many old-media organizations have chosen instead to pixelate the cartoons—as if it’s nudity on public television—or merely describe them to readers or listeners.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Matt Bors is cartoonist and the editor of The Nib. He also is, full disclosure and some bragging, a friend and former colleague at a different publication. On Wednesday afternoon, I talked to Bors—via FaceTime—about Charlie Hebdo and the media’s handling of the January 7th tragedy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Olivia Nuzzi: What do you think of publications deciding not to publish the cartoons?
Matt Bors: They’re clearly newsworthy—and [the cartoonists] were also killed specifically because of the cartoons. For news outlets to pixelate them for human safety is a bit ridiculous. Other news organizations have resorted to describing the cartoons, like NPR, as if we’re all babies and we can’t handle seeing something, or as if Muslims have no agency and are going to be compelled to murder if they come across a cartoon that offends them. That obviously happened [in this specific case], but we can’t govern how we cover news based on that.
ON: Do you think that pixelating the cartoons is worse than not showing them at all?
MB: Yeah, sort of. It’s acting like the images alone have this power to compel people to kill. It’s all about context. If CNN publishes racist cartoons every day because they want to propagate racism, that’s bad. If they publish a racist cartoon because it’s the center of an international news story based on a terrorist attack justified by those comics, then yes, showing the cartoon is necessary. We can handle it.
ON: Publications or television networks that don’t seem to have any problem showing real violence are treating these cartoons as if they’re somehow worse than that.
MB: Let’s keep in mind that you can pretty much see the dead bodies of Muslims on television and not the dead bodies of American soldiers. You can see all sorts of violence that they’ll air every day, but you can’t see a drawing of a person.
ON: I don’t know what the logic is there.
MB: [laughter] I don’t either. I don’t know if it’s about not wanting angry readers or if it’s about legitimately thinking a terrorist attack could occur. But there’s typically not much of a problem on cable news showing actual violent acts that are occurring around the world because they’re newsworthy, not because they think violence is good. So it would follow that showing a cartoon that’s newsworthy is worthwhile, whether or not you think the comic itself is good.
ON: At the end of the day, these are just cartoons, right? Cartoons are important works of journalism, but they’re still just ink and paper. It can’t make anyone do anything that they wouldn’t have been inclined to do regardless of whether the cartoons were ever published in the first place.
MB: Cartoons can be racist and they can be offensive, but they don’t compel people to kill. They’re powerful, but I think by not running them and censoring them, we’re sort of pretending they’re a little bit more powerful than they actually are.
Some of the criticism is veering into an almost victim-blaming mentality, like saying the cartoonists were wearing short skirts and asking for it, which sort of bothers me. It’s legitimate to criticize the cartoons—I criticize racist cartoons a lot. People should call out racism, people should criticize shit. But also, there’s a difference between being horrendously blasphemous and being virulently anti-immigrant and xenophobic. While [the Charlie Hebdo] caricatures are very crude—they have Muslims with big noses—and stereotypical, and I would never draw that way, I’ve heard people characterizing them in ways that I think are profoundly off-base, acting as if the publication is this right-wing, racist, xenophobic magazine, and that’s just not the case if you [talk to] anyone familiar with them.
ON: It also seems like the intended humor of the cartoons is being lost here. As serious as the topics they covered are, they were still supposed to be funny.
MB: People are uncomfortable saying they support something that they disagree with. The ‘Je suis Charlie’ thing?—you can’t reduce the nuances of this to a hashtag, because a lot of people don’t support the content of the cartoons, but they support the right [to create and publish them].
ON: To your ‘Je suis Charlie’ bandwagon point: Is it weird at all that suddenly so many people who may have never before expressed the sentiment are talking about how much they love cartoonists?
MB: I mean, it’s nice to be appreciated. I guess cartoonists should get killed more often. [laughter]
You recently published a Muhammad cartoon…
MB: In the context of these critics of Charlie Hebdo, and these kind of people who are like, ‘free speech!’ I kind of wanted to do a Muhammad cartoon that no reasonable person could look at and think was an over-the-top racist provocation. I didn’t use caricature, I’m not insulting Muslims, it’s specifically directed at the killers, and it’s also making fun of the obit-cartoon format, which I’ve criticized before.
ON: Did anyone criticize your decision to do the cartoon?
MB: I have received feedback from people who said I shouldn’t have done it, but it hasn’t been too overwhelming.
ON: Did they think you shouldn’t have done it because they found it offensive or because they feared for your safety?
MB: They thought it was a provocation, or unhelpful at this time, or needlessly provocative, or needlessly inflaming the situation. Again, I kind of don’t agree with that. I don’t want to treat Muslims as if they can’t look at a cartoon and think it’s reasonable. I don’t want to needlessly offend Muslims by any means whatsoever, and I don’t think I do that in my work.
ON: What do you make of how people are showing their newfound support for cartoonists? It seems like there’s a lot of sharing the cartoons on social media, but maybe not a lot of actually paying cartoonists for their work.
MB: For one, I feel like The Nib is one of the only paying outlets—I’m paying everybody for their cartoons and I’m not just doing roundups of things or the worst, which is embedding tweets. Now you can do essentially a photo gallery by embedding tweets of cartoons and it’s free, and you can get a million page views on BuzzFeed.
I think we have to point out that French culture has incredible regard for cartoonists. There are a lot of cartoonists who make a living in France, a lot of political cartoonists. It’s a very literate culture and a very comics-literate culture. In America, political cartoons are practically dying. There are very few staff jobs; very few of these websites who are hailing cartoonists as heroes and get page views from their galleries will actually hire a cartoonist. I’m one of the very few cartoonists that’s under 50 and has a job and I’m virtually the only one who has a job at a newer website.
Keep in mind, at the Charlie Hebdo offices, they still have 25 people going in to work there. They slaughtered a dozen people, and a single publication still has more cartoonists working for it than work for all American new media websites. Actually, it’s even starker than that: More cartoonists were killed at the Charlie Hebdo offices than work for American new media websites.