The airwaves have been filled with moral posturing to an extraordinary degree as a result of the New Yorker magazine’s cover art depicting Sen. Barack Obama dressed in traditional Muslim garb, fist-bumping his wife, who is sporting an AK-47, standing in the Oval Office with a picture of Osama bin Laden on the wall and an American flag burning in the fireplace. The magazine said they were obviously trying to make fun of the smears directed against Obama and there is no reason to disbelieve them. But, that may be little comfort to the Obama campaign.
Conservatives have been expressing outrage, faux outrage I suspect, but outrage nonetheless. To them, the cover feeds a long-standing narrative of an irresponsible elite press corps, this time biting one of its own. In the short term, I am sure they are delighted to have the Obama campaign on the defensive yet again, instead of talking about the economy. And, that while the kind of person who will believe the smears against Obama may not read the New Yorker, the magazine’s cover has made it onto the blogosphere, the cable television networks, and the pages of USAToday.
Liberals are torn. They are reflexively opposed to censorship of any kind, but they have to see that this incident shows why smears work. In order to defeat the smear, you have to keep addressing it. People who are inclined to believe nonsense are not big consumers of news and information. They may see coverage of the New Yorker’s cover fleetingly. The mute may be on the television, or they get the last half of a news story about it on the radio. Remember, some 10 percent of the nation’s population already does believe that Obama is a Muslim.
True insiders had to be careful. Unsurprisingly, before criticizing the cover as a mistake, David Gergen was on CNN saying that New Yorker editor David Remnick was a star, whose provocative sense of humor had breathed new life into the magazine, a man who…you expect Gergen intends to have business dealings with in the future. Mind you, I would not mind landing a contract at the New Yorker either, but it is depressing to see the attitudes of a courtier passing for commentary.
So, was the New Yorker wrong? Humor, especially the humor you are deciding to put on the cover of a magazine, must be very accessible. This cover was, upon even a moment’s reflection, an obvious caricature. But, in that moment of reflection, the editors should have recognized the need to find something funnier. Humor needs to be direct, at least when another person’s reputation is at stake.
Michael Sean Winters