Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten who commissioned the Danish Dozen that set fire to the Muslim world last winter, was awarded the Danish Free Press Society’s inaugural Sappho Prize, which comes with $3,500. The Award recognizes the journalist’s “excellence in his work” and his “courage and refusal to compromise.” Said the Society’s Lars Hedegaard: “Decisive [in the final determination] was Rose’s courage to print the cartoons and to stand his ground under the worst storm any journalist has ever endured.” The award is named for Sappho, an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, who, the Society alleges, combined traits that make her the best symbol for an age in which freedom of the press is threatened: Sappho was a woman, a lesbian, and had a willingness to write her mind and a sense of political incorrectness. Rose had no immediate comment, but he was interviewed at some length by Alia Malek in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Asked if his cartoons experience had changed his view of journalism, Rose laughed and said: “I have far more understanding for those complaining about the media every day that we are inaccurate and biased. It’s one thing to have a sense of this; it’s another to be the object of this kind of journalism yourself.” As a result, he continued, “I have become more conscious about what kind of authority you give to experts -- so-called experts -- in a news story,” adding that newspapers need to supply some background information on quoted experts so their remarks can be placed in the context of whatever bias the expert brings with him.

Since the cartoon project was initiated to test or reveal the extent of “self-censorship” and its inhibiting effect on journalism, Rose was asked if European media are in a “better place” now when it comes to Islam. “I would say there’s more restraint,” Rose said, alluding to the postponement last fall of a performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” because of a scene that depicts the severed heads of Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, and Neptune—but “because of the uproar about it, the decision was reversed” and the opera was performed after all. “Our cartoons did not create a new reality,” he continued. “They revealed a reality that was already there.”

One of the outcomes of the Danish Dozen, Rose said, is that the Muslim community has emerged with a much more multifaceted visage. “The Muslim community is not one, and there are many different voices and the majority is moderate,” he said. “We are very careful [now] that we get different points of view from the Muslim community” instead of believing that any Muslim quoted represents the community’s view. One of the purposes of the cartoon project was to challenge moderate Muslims to speak out, and Rose believes that objective has been “strengthened.” And the debate about integrating Muslim immigrants has become more reality-based, he said. But the clash of values revealed by the cartoon controversy is persistent. An opinion poll conducted by his paper last May among Muslims found that 51 percent of the respondents felt religious feelings should always trump freedom of speech.

Speaking of the most incendiary of the cartoons, the one with Mohammad’s turban transformed into a bomb with its fuse alight, Rose said: “I don’t accept the point that the cartoons are demonizing or stereotyping or racist. [To say that the turban-bomb cartoon depicts every Muslim as a terrorist involves] a kind of illiteracy to see the cartoon that way. [That cartoon] makes the point that some people in the name of the Prophet are committing terrorist acts, and that is a fact of life.” About minorities -- whether immigrant or ethnic -- Rose believes “it’s humiliating and discriminating to treat any minority as a kind of odd, special group. It’s important to treat everybody equally....It is an act of love and inclusion to satirize people. There is some kind of recognition in that, to know you can laugh and make fun of one another.” He reminded his questioner that his instruction to cartoonists was not to draw cartoons that made fun of the Prophet; it was, “Draw Mohammad as you see him -- which,” Rose added, “is very neutral.”

About the decision by most U.S. newspapers not to publish any of the offending cartoons, Rose said he had discussed the issue with an editor at a “top American paper” who “told me privately that ‘we have correspondents in that part of the world and we don’t want to expose them more than necessary.’” Rose was sympathetic but unyielding: “Fine,” he said, “but you should say so publicly. I can also understand if someone disagrees with these cartoons or thinks it was wrong to do it. But by January 30, 2006, these cartoons were newsworthy. And it says at the top of The New York Times: all the news fit to print.” Clearly, American newspapers that didn’t publish the cartoons at the time they were newsworthy had forsaken their journalistic responsibility.

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