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What were we thinking?

Publisher Ezra Levant tells the inside story of why the Western Standard decided to publish the controversial cartoons--and the amazing things that happened after we did

Ezra Levant - March 13, 2006

Editor Kevin Libin and I agreed: it was just one of those times when a fortnightly magazine wouldn't be able to move quickly enough. By the time the Western Standard would roll off the presses, every other daily newspaper and weekly magazine in the country would have already printed the Danish cartoons that were the subject of riots around the Muslim world. If we were going to publish them after Maclean's, the National Post and the Sun chain did, we'd have to take a different, more reflective approach--not to put the cartoons on the cover as a bold statement of freedom, as the others surely would. We would analyze how the media responded to the implied threats of violence from radical Muslims, we would look at how agents provocateurs used the cartoons to whip up riots in Iran, Pakistan and Syria to serve their own political ends, and we would reveal how the Muslim world itself has depicted Mohammed throughout the ages.

That was the plan, anyways. Of course, Maclean's, the Post and the Sun didn't publish the cartoons. As we came closer to our production deadline, it dawned on us that no large-circulation publication and no TV station in the country had done so, and none would. We'd be the first.

We didn't know what would happen; there had been a minor scuffle at a university in Halifax when a professor posted the cartoons on his office door--several belligerent students invaded his office and berated him. A larger protest followed, as did one in Toronto, apropos of nothing, in front of the Danish consulate. We decided to call the Calgary Police Service's Middle East community relations unit, just to give them the heads-up about what was coming. We hired some extra security for our office, too, out of an abundance of caution.

The magazine was still at the printer when word somehow leaked out that we were publishing the cartoons. The Friday before we rolled off the press, the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun both called to confirm it, and it was front-page news in Calgary on Saturday. By noon that day, radio and TV stations had picked up the story and were running with it nationally, following me on a visit to Saskatoon just to get the details. By the time Monday morning rolled around--before a single newsstand or subscriber had received the magazine--it was front-page news across the country, and was being given Michael Jackson-style coverage on TV and radio. That day, CTV alone interviewed me three separate times. Before the week was out, the news of our publication was the subject of more than 100 news stories, including on Al Jazeera and China's Xinhua.

Why was it such a big story? I don't mean the cartoons themselves--we know why they're news. But why was the fact that we published them considered news? The cartoons were the central artifact in the largest news story of the month. How could any self-respecting "news" outlet--other than radio stations that are forced to paint pictures with words--not display them? It wasn't for us to answer why we published them, it was for the rest of the media to answer why they did not.

In fact, a large number of journalists privately complimented us for doing what their own publishers had not allowed them to do, and some wrote supportive columns. I received kudos from many interviewers during commercial breaks, and unsolicited e-mail notes and phone calls. There was a pent-up frustration amongst the press corps that they had not been permitted to fully plumb the issues behind the cartoons and the riots, and our decision to publish gave them an opportunity to do so, using us as a surrogate.

A smaller but more vociferous group of reporters took the opposite approach, either in criticizing our bona fide news decision to publish them (such as gratuitously mentioning the fact that Libin and I are Jewish), or in magnifying the reaction to our publication, such as when two of our newsstand distributors, Chapters/Indigo and McNally Robinson, decided not to stock that one issue (they're both selling this latest edition). The eagerness among some of the press to report negative business ramifications bordered on the obsessive; it was as if they were hunting for some after-the-fact justification that their own decisions to censor themselves were valid. It was bad enough that we broke their censorship cartel and provided our lucky readers with the news they wanted. It embarrassed the self-righteous wing of the press corps that a plucky little magazine in Calgary showed more dedication to the craft of journalism than the grandees at CBC headquarters. But for us to do so without any severe suffering--as I write this, not a single protester has visited our offices, not a single bomb threat has been made--is an additional rebuke to their own timidity.

Publishing the cartoons did not create a frenzy among our subscribers or our advertisers. We actually sold several hundred new subscriptions, and hundreds more single-issue sales out of our office. It did not "inflame" the Muslim community. Our office was business as usual. The only people who went into a frenzy over it were the rest of the media, publicly examining their own neurosis about having failed in their duty to put reporting above political correctness.

More articles by Ezra Levant