The journalism of satire: The New Yorker should stick to its guns over its controversial cover

New Yorker

Monday saw a large display of media frenzy over the most recent cover of The New Yorker, published Sunday, which featured an illustration of Sen. Barack Obama and his wife depicted as various right-wing stereotypes which have been made about the couple during Obama’s race for presidential office. The illustration – made by Barry Blitt, known for his controversial political cartoons that have graced the magazine’s cover in the past – portrayed the senator dressed as an Arab man complete with turban and his wife Michelle in camo pants and toting an AK-47. The couple are portrayed fist pounding in the Oval Office and surrounded by various sensational items such as a burning American flag and a framed portrait of Osama bin Laden.

While the intention of the illustration, according to The New Yorker editor David Remnick, was to “hold up a mirror” to the ridiculousness of the various accusations made by some right-wing commentators about the couple (Barack being a secret Muslim and his wife an unpatriotic revolutionary), the cartoon fell very flat and unleashed a storm of criticisms not only from political activists and commentators but also from both Obama’s and McCain’s respective campaign committees.

While there is no question in our minds that The New Yorker had every right to run the illustration, one has to wonder exactly what the magazine hoped to gain from its publication. Did Remnick really believe that people would understand the image’s satirical and dry punchline without a clarifying caption? There’s no question that The New Yorker’s loyal readership clearly understand the magazine’s intention, but in a business that competes for greater numbers of easily distracted minds, the sensational nature of the cartoon can’t be overlooked. The fact that the magazine is seen as a bastion of world-class journalism seems to be a smoking gun that the image created exactly the response it was meant to create.

Nevertheless, we understand the kinds of tough decisions that news publications must make concerning possibly offensive and controversial material. We applaud Remnick for standing behind both his cartoonist and his decision to run the image, but we hope the decision was made with the careful deliberation and thought that running such a sensational drawing deserves.

In the end, perhaps our response as a people is far more telling than the image itself. Americans have never been fond of any but a broken mirror.

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