“Who ever heard of a jury anywhere convicting anyone of killing a newspaper man?”

There was a time when being a newspaper editor in South Carolina took guts. And there was a time when local editors had guts, too.

During the Civil War, there were newspapers in South Carolina that opposed secession and yet continued printing even as the war (and the mobs outside their buildings) raged.

In 1924, the editor of the Charleston Daily News faced what historians euphemistically call “a violent physical encounter” in his newsroom after editorializing against the race-baiting politics of Gov. Cole Blease and his local ally, Charleston mayor John P. Grace.

In the ’60s, the editor of the North Augusta Star faced economic boycotts, violent crowds, and threats from the police after uncovering wrongdoing by the police chief. He never backed down, and eventually the town government reformed.

And then there’s the famous case of N.G. Gonzales, one of the founders of The State newspaper, who was gunned down in broad daylight at the corner of Main and Gervais in 1903 by Lt. Governor James Tillman. Tillman was the nephew of the most powerful politician in the state, U.S. Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, but Gonzales didn’t care. He wrote paint-stripping editorials and merciless news stories that helped kill Jim Tillman’s campaign for governor. When Tillman shot the unarmed editor, Gonzales didn’t complain. He looked the Lt. Governor in the eye an offered one last editorial comment:

“Shoot me again, you coward.”

Gonzales died. The well-connected Lt. Governor was acquitted. One of the pro-Tillman jurors who heard the case offered the quote above as a defense for letting a murderer go free.

But it was H. L. Mencken who gave us the most lasting quote from the political assassination of N. G. Gonzales: “He was the last editor of The State worth shooting.”

Just over 100 years ago, the editor of The State was willing to risk his life defending his principles. Today, the fight for freedom can’t even make The State’s funny pages.

You’ve seen the news coverage of angry Muslims around the world demanding the beheading of newspaper cartoonists who drew images of Mohammed. You’ve heard the U.S. State Department’s shamefully weasel-esque response, condemning the artists. Perhaps you’ve seen the signs held by “moderate” Muslims in London reading “Freedom. Go To Hell!” and “He Who Offends The Prophet Must Die!” What you haven’t seen — in The State or The Post and Courier, anyway — are the actual cartoons.

In their defense, it should be noted that most American media outlets are just as cowardly as the lions of the Carolina press. NBC has (as of this writing) refused to show its viewers the cartoons that launched a thousand jihads. CNN has chosen to show the pictures but blur them to make the images unrecognizable, like a stripper’s private parts in a documentary on pole dancing.

At CNN, “news” and “porn” are practically indistinguishable.

And what about the papers? The courageous New York Times? Nope. The Washington Post? Refuses to publish them because, according to their editor, the cartoons violate the standards of “good taste.” This from the same paper that just ran an editorial cartoon featuring an American soldier with his arms and legs blown off being mocked by Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.

The Boston Globe goes one step further, blaming the editorialists instead of the Islamists. Rather than denouncing the kind of irrational thugs who would cut off your head over a cartoon, the Globe wrote: “Depicting Mohammed wearing a turban in the form of a bomb with a sputtering fuse is no less hurtful to most Muslims than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance. That is why the Danish cartoons will not be reproduced on these pages.”

I see: The guys supporting free speech and tolerance are the Nazis, and the violent anti-Semites who want to butcher them are the victims of Nazi horror. Yeah, right.

There are two reasons why every paper in America should print these cartoons immediately. The first — and extremely obvious — answer is: They’re news! As the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer said when her paper published one of the drawings: “You run it because there’s a news reason to run it. The controversy does not appear to have died down. It’s still a news issue.”

Wow — there’s a crazy idea for a “news” paper. Let’s use it to print the news!

There’s an even better reason why every newspaper in South Carolina should print these cartoons on their front page: To do your part to defend free speech … for a change.

The American press ran every photo it could find from Abu Ghraib, knowing as it did that the reaction would hurt the war effort and put our soldiers at risk. The American media didn’t hesitate to run with illegally leaked documents about ongoing surveillance of Al Qaeda suspects and their communications into the US, even though breaking that story has absolutely aided the terrorists who want to kill us.

I’m not saying that the press made the wrong decision in either case. But I am pointing out that, for the most part, the typical reporter has been riding in the “free press” wagon, not pushing it.

Well, guys, it’s time to get out and push. The threat against free speech from real-life religious zealots has arrived. Filmmakers have been shot. Writers have been stabbed. Cartoonists are forced underground in fear for their lives. Now’s your chance to affirm the power of the press and reject the threats of thuggery by printing just one of these cartoons on your front page, with a note explaining that you are supporting the principle, not the message.

But that’s not going to happen because the current crop of journalists just don’t have the guts. It’s easy to write editorials mocking Christians protesting naughty books because you know those Christians won’t be blowing up your parking garage. Attacking evangelicals is no big deal. What’s the worst they will do — Slip a bootleg Jimmy Swaggart CD under your car windshield?

Our brave, principled journalists are ready to stand and fight against any threat … that doesn’t actually exist. But now that speaking out really matters, our “defenders of free speech” suddenly have nothing to say.

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