The Magazine

CBS Does Denmark

But doesn't bother to get the story right.

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By HENRIK BERING
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When 60 Minutes shows up on your doorstep, you have reason to fear for your good name and reputation. The Danes learned this last week, when reporter Bob Simon and his team of cameramen descended on the country to pass judgment in the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons. The result of their labors was a 12-minute segment that displayed all the customary 60 Minutes arrogance and superficiality. In the report, the respected Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, which originally printed the cartoons, came across as a publication hellbent on gratuitously offending millions of Muslims around the world, while the Danes themselves were portrayed as naive, full of themselves, xenophobic, and way too blonde for their own good. Did we forget provincial? Add that to the list of Danish foibles, too.

The 12 cartoons were commissioned last fall when the editors of the Jyllands-Posten, feeling that a note of fear and self-censorship had crept into the Danish public discussion of matters Islamic, decided to test whether this was true. (Specifically, a writer of children's books had reported difficulty in finding an illustrator for a life-of-Muhammad volume.)

After an initial flap when the cartoons came out in the paper's September 30, 2005, edition, nothing much happened for months. Then a delegation of fundamentalist imams from Denmark decided to tour the Middle East, stirring up hatred. Unsure that the original, rather lame cartoons would be sufficiently incendiary, the imams added three crude images to the portfolio, including one purportedly of the prophet Muhammad disguised as a pig. (It turned out to be a photocopied picture of a man in a pig mask from a rural French hog-calling contest.) That certainly did the trick. The Danes were suddenly the most hated people on Earth, with their embassies under attack, their flag being burned, and their consciousness being raised by lectures on religious tolerance from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other beacons of enlightenment.

Among the participants in the 60 Minutes trashing of Denmark was Ahmed Abu-Laban, a Palestinian refugee and self-appointed spokesman of Danish Muslims, who instigated the tour of the Middle East and whose name has been linked to some very unpleasant groups and individuals in the Middle East. But rather than explore Laban's background and grill him in depth on the question of the added cartoons, CBS treated him with kid gloves as an aggrieved individual. Not a word about his contacts, nor of the fact that he has been speaking with a forked tongue, urging dialogue in his Friday prayers in Denmark, while inciting confrontation and boycott when talking to Middle Eastern audiences. All this is easily obtainable information, which CBS chose to ignore.

Unfortunately, the editors of the Jyllands-Posten, having received a forewarning about the likely drift of the program and reportedly in a state of shellshock after weeks of criticism, chose not to appear on the show. With death-threats and fatwas issued against the cartoonists, the paper had thrown in the towel and issued public regrets for having offended Muslims.

With the main players not being on hand to defend the rights of a free press, this task was left to Tøger Seidenfaden, editor in chief of a rival paper, the liberal Politiken, which has been in the forefront of condemning the publication of the cartoons and whose endorsement of the principle of freedom of speech was accordingly less than ringing. Some suggest that the problem with Jyllands-Posten is that, not being left-wing, it is not perceived to merit the kind of unqualified support from Seidenfaden and his colleagues in the Danish press that Salman Rushdie received when the fatwa was issued against him by the mullahs in Tehran back in 1989 over his novel The Satanic Verses.

Having condemned the editors of Jyllands-Posten as irresponsible and cowardly to boot for not showing up for public chastisement, it was now time for 60 Minutes to turn to the rest of the country. As evidence of its general xenophobia, Simon pointed to Denmark's strict policies on immigration, which he called the toughest in Europe and which have earned criticism from all the same organizations that habitually find fault with America: the U.N., the European Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, etc.

To understand Denmark's current stance on immigration, you need to know how these policies came about. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Denmark had an open door policy towards asylum-seekers from the Third World and the Middle East, Palestinians in particular, often without sufficient background checks being made. It was naively believed that if you gave people a nice home, public benefits, access to free hospital care and free schools, and freedom from persecution, they would turn into nice Social Democrats.