The Trashing Of The Christ

Contrasts In Media Treatment of The DaVinci Code and The Passion

4. While the faith of millions of Americans, Christianity, is singled out for criticism, with one "fascinating" fictional detail after another, the networks either refused to air or barely aired mild Mohammed cartoons out of great sensitivity to American Muslims.

At the same time that Christianity is questioned as a false religion in The DaVinci Code, the three major network news divisions have demonstrated an exquisite sensitivity to American Muslims. Earlier this year, they danced around the sensitive subject of threatened violence against mostly mild Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad.

It is nearly impossible to imagine that the network newscasters would promote a book with a fictional plot this ruthlessly declaring a religious faith to be false, indeed maliciously false, with any other major world religion. One cannot imagine any other religion but Christianity being picked apart in-depth on television: no hour-long special rankling Jews (and Christians) by maligning Moses, no deconstructing the Buddha or the Bhagavad Gita, not even shredding Scientology, and certainly not a minute daring to challenge the fundamental truth or falsehood of Islam.

Two of the three networks, so daring or unthinking in their airing of repudiations of Christianity and its creed, crumbled at the prospect of being targeted for violence or accused of airing news that’s insulting:

2006-02-02-ABC-wnt-cartoon– Only ABC showed a cartoon in its entirety for a few seconds during World News Tonight and on Nightline on February 2. "We felt you couldn't really explain to the audience what the controversy was without showing what the controversy was," said Jeffrey Schneider, a spokesman.

– On February 6, Brian Montopoli reported on the CBS News website "Public Eye" that CBS decided to avoid any image of the cartoons on February 6. "We could explain it, so we didn't need to show it," said Linda Mason, CBS News senior vice president for standards and special projects, comparing the decision to one not to show dead soldiers. "Any rendering of Muhammad is an insult to Muslims, and desecration is even worse," she says, adding that the decision was made out of a desire not to unnecessarily offend, not because of the demonstrations or "out of fear of retribution." (CBS was so sensitive they even scrubbed of a photo of a man holding a newspaper featuring an image of the cartoon. Mike Sims of the website crowed: "I think we've proven we can tell the story without offending Muslims.") Reporter Richard Roth, a regular correspondent this year on the DaVinci Code beat, briefly announced the network’s no-cartoon decision on air on February 2.

– NBC’s Campbell Brown announced on "The Daily Nightly" weblog on February 2: "After some discussion in our editorial meeting, we have decided not to show the cartoons explicitly. We are trying to treat this issue with care and sensitivity while still bringing you the story." That night on the Nightly News, reporter Dawna Friesen noted the policy on air: "Their outrage triggered by cartoons, which we've chosen not to show, first published in a Danish newspaper. One depicts the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban that looks like a bomb."

Because the Muslim cartoon sensitivities made reporters feel awkward, the story quickly came and went in the first week of February, without any real concerns that sensitivity to a religious group led to self-censorship. But the appeal of the daring attack on Christianity in The DaVinci Code showed that this kind of sensitivity is not an across-the-board policy.