TOPICS > Politics

New Yorker Cover Satirizing Obama Raises Controversy

July 14, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In the latest issue of the New Yorker, a cover illustration of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and his wife satirizes some of the rumors that have swirled about the candidate. Writers Michael Eric Dyson and Eric Bates examine the media controversy.

GWEN IFILL: The New Yorker magazine created a firestorm today, with a new cover that attempts to satirize every false claim ever made about Barack and Michelle Obama.

The cartoon, by artist Barry Blitt, is a drawing of the Obamas standing in the Oval Office, offering each other a fist bump. He’s dressed in traditional Muslim garb, and she has a Kalashnikov rifle slung over her shoulder. An American flag burns in the fireplace, and Osama bin Laden’s picture hangs on the wall.

Editors at the New Yorker said the cover was meant to mock the lies that have circulated about Obama, but both the Obama and the McCain campaigns condemned the depiction as tasteless and inappropriate.

So can satire go too far? For that, we turn to Michael Eric Dyson. He’s a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. And Eric Bates, executive editor of Rolling Stone magazine.

Professor Dyson, when do you cross the line? When does satire begin to give offense?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Georgetown University: Well, certainly when you have to explain it or deconstruct it. We’re not Jacques Derrida, but we are trying to — in the business here of trying to make certain that the things we satirize — and we have no doubt, I have no doubt, I’m sure the Obamas have no doubt that David Remnick, one of the princes of American publishing, has all great intentions, and Mr. Blitt.

But the line here is crossed, I think, when the intent of the mockery is obscured by the busyness of the interpretation that surrounds the art, and not in an edifying, uplifting fashion.

Many of the things that the art sought to undermine, so to speak, were simply for an unenlightened and unsophisticated populous that might view it, along with others who would view it and not get the intent of the joke, so to speak, only reinforces those same things.

And here’s where I think it blurs the line, as well. If it is true that Obama is not a Muslim, if it is true that Obama did not hold his hand on the Koran to get sworn in, and if it’s true that Michelle Obama is not all of the things that they suggested she is on there, the fist bump is confusing, because she did have a fist bump with her husband.

So you’ve got a true, if you will, actually existing gesture there that is now interpolated into this vast region of signifying that’s going on in this very busy, and I think very confusing, satire that ultimately, if we have to explain it on the NewsHour, didn’t really hit its mark.

Did the New Yorker cross the line?

GWEN IFILL: Eric Bates, you make cover decisions all the time. Did the New Yorker cross the line?

ERIC BATES, Rolling Stone: No, I don't think it crossed the line. I would question whether there's much of a line to be crossed. I think their intent was clear, but I think it's clear from the response that a lot of people didn't get the joke.

And that's one of the dangers of humor in general, and particularly of political satire, is how do you signal to people that you're joking? If you're doing stand-up, traditionally you do things like saying, "Hey, isn't it crazy the way Barack Obama is being portrayed as a terrorist?" And then you go on and riff about that. It's harder to do in a visual format.

I actually think the fist bump is the element of the image that was intended to do that, that was intended to signify, "Hey, I'm riffing on a current event here."

Several months ago, the New Yorker ran a cartoon by the same cartoonist, Barry Blitt, that showed Barack and Hillary in bed waking up at 3:00 in the morning and trying, fighting to answer a red telephone that was ringing. I don't think anyone looked at that and thought that the New Yorker was suggesting that Barack and Hillary had slept together.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, a New Yorker several years ago ran another cover, which I think we can show, in which we saw the entire Bush administration afloat in the Oval Office on September 19, 2005, right after Katrina.

Professor Dyson, why isn't that as offensive as what we saw today?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that partly what we're doing is underestimating the depth of the bigotry and the breadth of the bias that shapes even the culture into which satire is thrust.

The performance of parody and the articulation of satire depend upon people, as Mr. Bates has indicated, getting the joke. Now, you can say, "Oh, poor, dumb slobs. They didn't get the joke. Those schlubs, they missed out on the joke and they didn't get it."

Well, that's part of the point. If we don't get the joke, if enough people on the inside, you've got to say, "See, what I meant was," then ultimately the satirical intent has not been effective.

The sensitivity factor

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: And I think the reason it's problematic here is that the bias against Mr. Obama is so, so thorough and so complete and the signifiers out there are so dripping with complicated imagery -- for instance, it shouldn't be a shame that anybody is considered to be Muslim to begin with.

But in the culture in which we exist, the signifying of his Muslim identity already is ratcheted up a notch. And now he's got to say he's not really a Muslim, when, in fact, that's horrible to even have to say he's not, but as a matter of fact he isn't because of what it signifies in the culture.

You've got so many layers of signification there that the satire is not even clear.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Bates about the layers of signification. How much of this is people just being just too darned sensitive about anything that seems offensive?

ERIC BATES: We live in a country -- and this cartoon, the response to this cartoon is a reminder that it's sharply divided by race and by racism. And so I would never say that people's response is too sensitive when there are millions of Americans who suffer the effects of racism on a daily basis in their housing, in their jobs, at the voting booth, for that matter.

So I think Michael is right in that the context in the culture in which this humor is received, in which this satire is made is very, very fraught. We don't have a common language on race and on racism. It's clear from the response to this attempt at humor and satire. And it's a reminder of that.

GWEN IFILL: Was it clear to you that that cover was about race or was it just about trigger points?

ERIC BATES: I think it was -- it's about trigger points that involve race, clearly. You look at that cartoon, I look at that cartoon, and I don't for a second think that the New Yorker is suggesting that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are unpatriotic, Muslim terrorists, radicals. They're commenting on the absurdity of the fact that it's even suggested that they're viewed in that way.

Here you have a candidate who's probably one of the most devout proselytizers of the American dream that this country has ever produced, and his wife, who cut back on her career as a corporate lawyer and hospital executive to spend more time with the kids.

I think the New Yorker assumed that that was so apparent that people would get the joke. And Michael is absolutely right in saying that it's ineffective. If people don't get the joke or misinterpret it that wildly, then you've got a problem.

It doesn't mean, though, that that's the role of the artist or the journalist to try to pull back or not take risks. The New Yorker went out there in an area that it knows is very, very fraught and tried to make a statement. And if it missed the mark, they should still be applauded for trying to hit the mark.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, Professor Dyson, is it the responsibility of the media to lampoon, to some degree, politicians and powerful people?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Oh, I think so. I mean, obviously, the people in power are subjected to this routinely.

I went to see Chris Rock on Saturday night here in Atlanta, and he made a statement in his comedy. He said, look, when you're the big person, when you're the rich person, poor people can say stuff about you, but it's downright wrong and brutal for rich people to beat up on poor people. He said people who are larger can lampoon people who are skinnier, but not the opposite.

McCain campaign sides with Obama

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: So the point is that, yes, there are always weights and balances here. And I think that, when it comes to satire, ironically enough, even though Barack Obama potentially can be the most powerful in man in the world, the reality is, on the other side, that he is subjected to these forces that seem to be arbitrarily deployed to get at him that are nameless, and faceless, and anonymous until they are concretized in such gestures.

So I don't impugn the integrity of the artist nor of the editor to make a point here. And I think it's brilliant and edifying and lovely that they want to lampoon that bias. But we've got to be clear that we're not reinforcing the very pathology we seek to oppose or to highlight.

And I think here the obscuring of those lines is what made this ineffective and, therefore, the potential harm in such a lampooning is that it reinforces the very thing you want to undermine.

GWEN IFILL: Are you surprised, Eric Bates, that McCain campaign joined the Obama campaign in denouncing this portrayal?

ERIC BATES: Not at all. I'm surprised the Obama campaign denounced the portrayal.

I would expect the McCain camp would feel obliged to do so, to distance itself from the kind of bias and bigotry that's being lampooned in this cartoon. But for the Obama camp to take offense or to join in what was clearly a misinterpretation of the image was much more surprising to me.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University and Eric Bates of Rolling Stone magazine, thank you both very much.