James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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The New Yorker’s Obama cover

Posted by James McPherson on July 14, 2008

Finally, something the Obama and McCain camps can agree on.

“The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree,” says an Obama spokesman.

“We completely agree with the Obama campaign, it’s tasteless and offensive,” said McCain’s spokesman.

As Politico says, the cover of the issue that goes on sale today “certainly will be candy for cable news.”

Judge for yourself, then I’ll offer my take. Note the Muslim attire, the Afro, the fist bump, the AK-47, the picture of Osama bin Laden over the Oval Office fireplace, and the burning flag.

You can find a lot of comment in the responses at the Huffington Post and elsewhere, but as someone who has often misjudged what would be appropriate or funny, I find myself sympathetic to the New Yorker, which stated, “”Please note that it is satire–we are poking fun at the scare tactics and misinformation that some have employed to derail Obama’s campaign.” I would have perceived the cover as appropriate political satire–at least before reading the articles inside. Others agree, and some people think it may even help Obama in the long run.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” yesterday, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page  said the cover “is just lampooning all the crazy ignorance out there.” On CNN’s American Morning, liberal talk-show host Laura Flanders and conservative talk-show host Joe Pagliarulo agreed with one another that the cover was not critical of Obama, and that his campaign could and should have used it as an opportunity to criticize his real enemies–the ignorance of much of the electorate and the media that help perpetuate that ignorance.

A stunning example: A Newsweek poll released Friday still shows: “Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur’an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true.”

But I’d be more sympathetic toward the New Yorker–which, frankly, I suspect would prefer Obama over John McCain–if the magazine hadn’t run the cover photo at the top of its Web page exactly between a teaser headline for “the Campaign Trail” subtitled, Hendrik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza, and Jeffrey Toobin on flip flopping” and Hertzberg’s piece discussing Obama’s real and exaggerated “flip-flops.” And the main article, by Lizza, is generally negative. And yes, the Hertzberg article also discusses many of McCain’s flips, but groups them in a single paragraph at the end of the story. The magazine prompts Alternet’s Don Hazen to ask in an excellent article today, “Why are the New Yorker, Salon and other liberal media doing the right’s dirty work?”

Still, I tend to agree with Flanders that the photo “isn’t a jab at [the Obamas], terrorist or any other kind. This is a jab at the media. … It should be cause for our conversation to focus on the kind of fear mongering that the media and people on the right have engaged in.”

Hazen expands on that problem: “Unfortunately the impact of this image will extend far beyond the reading audience of the New Yorker; cable news and the right-wing media noise machine will amplify the derogatory image to millions more. And the New Yorker of course will reap enormous publicity, clearly translating to increased sales and notoriety for the brand, and for corporate owner Conde Nast–one of the largest and most powerful media companies in America.”

As for Flanders’ hope, good luck with the media indicting themselves in that discussion.

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4 Responses to “The New Yorker’s Obama cover”

  1. I’m not quite sure what to think of this whole thing. The key to communication, I think, is not what you *try* to communicate but what people perceive from your communication. In this case, the New Yorker should ask itself, “What would the average reader see and think from looking at this cover?”

    In all probability, more people have seen the image on the cover than have actually read the associated article (myself included). However, the people who would understand the cover as political satire already know that the rumors about the Obamas are false.

    As for the people who believe Barack was sworn in on a Qur’an – they seem so capable of believing nonsense that the New Yorker cover will probably just fuel their suspicions. I really can’t see this as a positive development.

    Note: Your Huffington Post link is broken.

  2. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Grady, for the comment and the note about the link. I’ve fixed it above, I think, and just in case here’s the long version: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/07/13/yikes-controversial-emnew_n_112429.html. There are now almost 5,000 comments, most of which repeat something someone had already said earlier.

  3. […] question is relevant because of what Obama pointed out with Larry King last night. The New Yorker cover that has drawn so much attention is a cartoon, not particularly noteworthy for what it says about […]

  4. […] “Ticker: McCain parody pushes pills, walker” (about a Vanity Fair spoof of the recent New Yorker cover) and “VP buzz swirls around McCain” (which I noted yesterday that I thought was a […]

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