Satirical Malfunction: The New Yorker And Its Obama Cover

Monday, July 14, 2008

By now you might have heard about the Obama cover on The New Yorker, and if not you can see it pictured above. There's already been a multitude of stories and comments on it which you can read here, here, here, and here, as well as listen to an NPR round table here.

My take?

I'm a free speech advocate, and I love satire. In the political arena - no matter who that candidate is - no one should be exempt, and rightly so. We've built our country (in part) on being able to openly criticize not just politicians and public figures, but those who support as well as denounce them. In that way I have no problem with The New Yorker and their magazine trying to satirize something within the political landscape.

But I'm also an advocate against racism, stereotyping, xenophobia, ethnic humor gone wrong, and people who don't take historical context into consideration.

To be honest - I'm a little torn.

Here's what The New Yorker editor David Remnick had to say:

What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's — both Obamas' — past, and their politics. I can't speak for anyone else's interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama's supposed "lack of patriotism" or his being "soft on terrorism" or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers. That somehow all this is going to come to the Oval Office.

The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are... We've run many many satirical political covers. Ask the Bush administration how many.
If the piece is about the misconceptions that people have (or blatantly lie about) towards Obama, where in this cover are they being represented? How are they being lampooned? Without them in the cover the absurdity between what's being said about Obama and his wife versus who they truly are within the context of this campaign is lost in some ways, and to that effect it can become less of a satirical piece versus ammunition to perpetuate Obama myths based on the cover alone regardless of their base audience.

I think in a lot of ways we all get what they're trying to say - but I think the execution wasn't as good as it could have been because it focuses only on the image versus the people creating that image and I think that's key in what they're trying to say because the image being portrayed is only 1/2 of it - and if you're not satirizing the people who are actually creating and believing the false information about Obama, it begs the question of if they really thought this through versus just going "Let's put this up because it's kind of incendiary and it's going to draw attention to our magazine".

And in a lot of ways I think that's what they did do - and to that end - in a lot of ways it makes it nothing more than fodder for miscommunication and misdirection which is the same thing they were in fact satirizing.