Throwback Thursday: A 10-Year-Old Cartoon Controversy & the Charlie Hebdo Attack

Throwback Thursday is an occasional CMM feature focused on fascinating, impacting, controversial and quirky moments in contemporary college media history.

Almost a decade ago, The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois faced a barrage of criticism and an internal newsroom battle of epic proportions stemming from its publication of some controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Given its approaching 10-year-anniversary and its obvious connection to the Charlie Hebdo attack — not the bloodshed of course but the content triggering it — the incident seems ripe for a brief revisitation.

In February 2005, Daily Illini editor-in-chief Acton Gorton and opinion editor Chuck Prochaska inserted six editorial cartoons mocking the Islamic Prophet Muhammad into an issue — allegedly without other editors’ knowledge or approval. The provocative visuals had first appeared the previous fall in a Danish newspaper, triggering intellectual and religious-based earthquakes across Europe. For the uninitiated, it is a deadly sin to display Muhammad in an image and similarly sacrilegious to characterize him as anything other than strong and virtuous.

The reprinting of the cartoons in the DI triggered enormous controversy on campus, in the local and then national press and in the paper’s own newsroom.

Almost right away, for example, Muslim students held a protest. The Muslim Student Association president: “I was in disbelief that they would do this. That our own student-based newspaper would be so ignorant and disrespectful.”

The university chancellor also wrote a critical letter to the editor. And in a separate letter to readers published the next day, the rest of the DI editorial board blasted Gorton’s decision to run the cartoons as duplicitous and self-aggrandizing.

1The paper’s publisher held a similar view, essentially proclaiming that Gorton had gone rogue. A portion of a letter the publisher sent to DI alumni: “[Gorton] demonstrated a lack of respect for his colleagues and a total disregard for the need to collaborate or communicate honestly in the newsroom. … His focus … is for the media attention he is receiving personally for his courageous move … to run the cartoons in his paper, not for the need to publish an excellent newspaper worthy of its reputation.”

Both Gorton and Prochaska were suspended with pay for two weeks — not for running the cartoons but because they apparently “failed to consult key student leaders in the Daily Illini newsroom.”

Gorton fought publicly and passionately against that charge. Along with Prochaska, he said he spoke to at least one other editor at length about running the cartoons and that during production night “every single member of my editorial board looked at the page and was fully aware of what was going on.”

So then, what was going on, from his perspective? Gorton claimed his suspension was absolutely tied to the cartoon content and not the process by which they appeared in print. As he said at the time, “They say I haven’t broken any rules or policies, but they want to have control over what I say. That’s not how a newsroom runs. The editor calls the shots.”

1He also hired a lawyer to rebut the DI publisher, whom he accused of engaging in a full-on “character assassination” in the alumni letter and other public statements. And he granted an interview to The New York Times for a story on how ugly and surreal the whole saga had become.

He told the paper: “This has gotten crazy. … We did this to raise a healthy dialogue about an important issue that is in the news and so that people would learn more about Islam. Now, I’m basically fired.”

According to the NYT story, other college papers also printed all or some of the controversial cartoons including The Northern Star at Northern Illinois University, The Vidette at Illinois State University and The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Badger Herald EIC at the time: “Universally, we found the cartoon[s] to be repugnant. But we believe that there was a certain endangerment of free speech here, especially given the general prudishness of the American press. We believe our readers are mature enough to look at these images.”

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