7/15/2008

The Obama Caricatures Revisited

The liberal magazine The New Yorker provided the latest bit of controversy with the cover of its latest issue. If you haven't seen this provocative cover by now, you can access it here.

The New Yorker essentially took every false impression of Obama and meshed them together into cover art that can accurately be described as brilliant, tasteless, courageous, and slanderous. While some may have found this cover tasteless or irresponsible, cries for censorship seem a bit overboard and will not gain much traction.

Voters who understand satire know what this cover is all about. Barack HUSSEIN Obama is dressed as a proud Arab Muslim while an angry-looking Michelle Obama is dressed as a radical Black militant with a machine gun and an afro. Both are doing a "terrorist fist jab," as opposed to a more benign fist bump. No flag lapel pin is to be found on Obama's shirt, but an American flag is burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Osama bin Laden, whom Obama reveres. After all, Obama is an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer who has no allegiance to the United States and can't wait to destroy this nation from within.

The New Yorker's combination of satire and hyperbole should (emphasis on "should") lead voters to realize that these persistent rumors about Obama are completely unfounded and that this caricature of him is obviously both invalid and silly. However, voters who didn't buy into these Muslim rumors to begin with or who later arrived at the truth about Obama didn't need this magazine cover to prove these rumors false. Also, it is important to note once again that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. Obama's liberal base would be more likely to read this magazine than other voters, but they were already comfortable with Obama and understand the satirical aspect of the cover. So that begs the question of exactly who The New Yorker's audience was. (Imagine the outrage if a conservative publication like the National Review had used this cover!)

Notice my use of the word "should" in the previous paragraph. Remember, this nation is not long removed from "freedom fries," accusing people who disagreed with President Bush's war policies of being "against America," and viewing flag pins as the only unequivocal way to express one's patriotism. But these voters don't read The New Yorker. Many of them have probably never even heard of it. And they probably weren't going to vote for Obama either. These voters will probably look at this provocative magazine cover and conclude that his lack of forcefully denouncing it means the caricature must be true. Obama can't win with these voters and shouldn't waste his time with them.

Yes, a significant part of the electorate is decidedly anti-Obama for reasons that are unrelated to his liberal ideology. Think about all the advantages a generic Democrat has over a generic Republican on issue after issue in most polls. There's an unpopular war, a shaky economy, an unpopular two-term Republican president, and greater dissatisfaction among voters with the Republican Party. But Barack Obama the candidate is only barely beating John McCain the candidate. So it would seem that Obama's underperformance in spite of so many favorable indicators to the contrary is at least partially due to an anti-Muslim, anti-Black vote. The anti-liberal vote doesn't care one iota about Obama or The New Yorker either, but at least their opposition is more benign.

The danger for Obama is that these kinds of stories only get people talking about the very stuff Obama is trying to avoid--not because he's a closet Muslim radical, but rather because it takes him off message. He would much rather talk about his plan for the economy and Afghanistan than how offended he was by some magazine cover. And because Obama is still new to the political scene, voters are still forming their impressions of him as a politician. Surely, he would rather define himself than have others define him the way Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Wesley Clark, Jesse Jackson, and now The New Yorker have done with varying degrees of success.

As for political ramifications, this controversy is not good news for Hillary Clinton either. Some of her campaign volunteers were responsible for spreading some of these rumors before the Iowa caucuses last fall. And Clinton herself did not definitively swat down rumors about Obama's religion by claiming that he was not a Muslim "as far as she knew." In other words, her veepstakes odds may have become a little longer.

Of course, the fact that people are at least talking about this magazine cover is good for society because dialogue breeds understanding. Anytime the nation talks about ethics and race, progress is being made. Obama's candidacy is forcing everyone to reassess issues of race, religion, and gender.

Also, as an unintended advantage for Obama, voters who disagree with his politics may support him regardless because they view his election as a means by which they can repudiate the media, the punditry, and tabloid journalism in general. They might not like his politics, but they are fed up with the sideshows, phony outrage, misplaced priorities, insincere retractions, and forced expressions of contrition that have plagued this campaign season.

Having said all that, this controversy illustrates another problem with the nexus of politics, the media, and voters.

When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame. Until voters demand more from their politicians and audiences demand more from the media, it will only be a matter of days before the nation is distracted yet again by another surrogate- or media-induced controversy. Politics should be about governance, but it is treated as an extended soap opera in which people spend more time dissecting and anticipating missteps than actually analyzing their policies. Our short attention spans are exploited by the media whenever they seize on these distractions.

At what point will voters and the media stop focusing on these sideshows? Why should anybody care what Pundit X, Talking Head Y, and the staff at Media Organization Z think? This campaign should be about Barack Obama's and John McCain's plans for the nation. Our political discussion should be about the economy, taxes, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, domestic spending, and foreign policy. But this pragmatism is nowhere to be found, as the campaigns have come to be defined by flag pins, fist bumps, cooking recipes, genitalia, Vietnam, pastors, White entitlement, and now magazine covers. Again, while it is good that the nation is discussing issues of race, gender, and religion, even if awkwardly, it must be stated that the way in which our nation's political dialogue can so easily be derailed by peripheral matters is doing everyone a great disservice.

15 comment(s):

Brett said...

Good point about "who's reading this?" Anthony; that's not anything I've heard mentioned in the news or talk shows. I personally thought the caricature was pretty funny; it shows why these types of rumors are so retarded.

At the same time, I wish we all had some better idea on exactly what path to take for better voting and news. We generally all agree that A is the current situation, and B is a point where viewers and voters are more enlightened and demand more from their news and politicians, but it's the way of getting there that is the beast.

DB said...

This satirical cover picture was so much deeper than just the right-wing caricatures of Obama. This cover also showed what happens when people perceive Obama being attacked. The right makes the claims, and the left jumps right in to shoot the claims down. The cover played the first role (of the right) and the media coverage played the second role (defending Obama). I loved this. Brilliant cover art, and surely they knew the response it would get would be typical (had people mistakenly taken it seriously as they did). Some claim it went too far, but satire is best when it pushes that envelope. I loved it.

Schenck said...

National Review Cover?

Khaki Elephant said...

Wouldn't you say the true target of the satire was not Obama, but "rural America"? Is the New Yorker attempting to tell the world that most of the folk attacking Obama are backward hicks who actually believe this nonsense?

John D said...

Hmm it seems that conservatives are equally offended for suggesting that this is how they intend to portray Barack, Muslims because of the negative stereotypes presented in the image, and those who are too appalled by the imagery to consider the satire.

I don't think its satire unless it pushes the envelope db, at least not for me...

http://www.semipolitico.com We wrote a story on our blog about this, so check it out.

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

Do you think a rational observer of politics would be better off as a pundit/opinion maker or as a journalist who gets to control which stories make it to air and how they get covered?

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DB,

I could personally care less about the cover myself. I mean, it didn't make me any more or any less likely to vote for Obama. If your opinion about him can be shaped by something that is ultimately so trivial, perhaps you should turn off the television because there's a lot worse on the airwaves. Having said that, I thought the cover was creative, but it failed in that so many people simply "didn't get it." So in terms of fulfilling its goal as satire, it achieved limited success.

This incident will be taught in journalism schools around the nation for years to come.

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Schenck,

David Horsey is one of my favorite liberal political cartoonists. I also like Tom Toles and Dan Sherfius. As for conservatives, I like Chuck Asay and Robert Ariail. Very talented and poignant. Thanks for the link.

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Khaki,

Hmmmm, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say the intended audience was rural America because I doubt most of the people living there even subscribe to the magazine to begin with. I think the audience was any- and everyone who was part of the rumor mill and anyone who is hypersensitive about Obama. These groups include Obama devotees, PUMAs from the Clinton campaign, some of the anti-Obama 527s, talk radio hosts, and even Obama allies in the press. You make an interesting point though. Perhaps there was a bit of condescension there on behalf of the editors, but I'm just not sure who it was directed towards.

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John D,

I'd be interested in seeing how people on the right approach attacking Obama in the future. A lot of them attack him using "codewords" that arguably feed into these stereotypes. Fox News kept calling Michelle Obama "angry," for example. I hope the right keeps attacking him because even Obama should not be above ridicule and he will need to toughen up anyway because September and October will be hell.

Thanks for the good comments everyone.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

so much waisted time on this dang

S.W. Anderson said...

The paragraph that begins, "When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame," is a gem.

We who follow politics closely, discuss it with others who follow it closely, even blog about it, are not typical Americans.

Typical Americans catch bits and pieces here and there, most often passively as radio listeners, TV viewers and/or newspaper/magazine readers. To attract their audiences, the media have opted for lotsa colorful graphics, plenty of pictures and an infotainment approach — the equivalent of sugarcoating a pill to make it more palatable.

Oh, and there's one more key element to what the media do to attract ears and eyeballs. They always, always, always favor personality over issues of substance. If they can spend endless hours "debating" whether John Kerry saved a fellow sailor's life in Vietnam, or got drunk and fell overboard, or some such, media talking heads are in hog heaven.

However, if those media talking heads are to engage a seasoned expert on foreign policy such as Sen. Joe Biden in an intelligent, informative discussion of what to do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they will have to do some serious homework. If media talking heads are going to have a really worthwhile discussion of national-security and anti-terrorism efforts with Richard Clarke, they'll have to read his excellent books. That's time consuming work.

To see topnotch professionals doing interviews well, watch Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer and Bill Moyers. Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and others of the "60 Minutes" crew have done excellent interviewing over the years. C-SPAN interviews are usually high caliber. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC doesn't do many in-depth interviews, but even in shorter ones shows evidence of having done his homework.

To see infotainment on-air personalities in action, watch CNN's Anderson Cooper, Glenn Beck, Wolf Blitzer and the hacks at Fox News with a critical eye.

Note how often these interviewers hone in on things having to do with personalities, personal and political disputes, rumors, charges and extraneous things like the New Yorker cover, and attempted gotchas.

The difference is as pronounced as that between watered-down Kool-Aid and scotch on the rocks.

Brett said...

Thanks for the response, Anthony.

In response to your question, I would say that it would be better to be the latter, a journalist who controls what is shown and isn't shown. It is a far, far greater sign of ability in terms of understanding politics to be able to sift through countless tidbits of information and build a cohesive story from it while remaining objective, than to simply offer commentary on the story, regardless of how intelligent it may be.

Schenck said...

I'm gonna have to disagree with Brett... critical thinkers are needed at each level and cannot survive without the other. A great pundit is nothing without a story to analyze, and a great journalist is nothing without pundits' endlessly conflicted translations. Another way to put it is the great journalist offers unbiased facts and information (hah) and the pundit uses his or her experience, which the general public might not have, to extrapolate the meaning of a story or a piece. The pundits encourage the public to open up and consider interpretations they may have not previously considered.

Why am I here? Because you offer intelligent interpretations I may have not previously considered. Sure, I may disagree sometimes - that is to be expected - but I feel smarter just being exposed to another thoughtful point of view. Unfortunately, sometimes I feel dumber being exposed to some of the views spewed on CNN and MSNBC (don't watch FOX).

Brett said...

I'm not saying that pundit interpretations of news is not valuable; it can be quite valuable. I still think it is of less value than actual reporting, though.

A pundit may offer valuable interpretations of information, like what Treaty X might mean for our policies and the like - but they are ultimately constrained by the nature of the news put out. A journalist, however, has to perform a much deeper analysis; they have to take both the information about the above, whether it be a press release or secret source, and integrate it into other information to create a coherent narrative which the pundits then argue over. The pundits may debate over the meaning of a story - but the journalists create and shape the story, and their analysis must therefore be deeper and more important. That's why I think it would be better for a rational observer to be a journalist than a pundit. A rational journalist can put everything together in a way that allows for clear interpretation and examination within the context of history and the like; a pundit can merely examine what is left behind by the journalist.

Brett said...

Sorry, that was long-winded. To put it more shortly, a rational observer as journalist can organize information in such a way that even having piss-poor pundits to analyze it can lead to at least an area of general correctness of action. But with a poor journalist, even the best pundits will still lead to error, because their premises are wrong or distorted.

Ergo, having a rational observer in journalism is probably more important than a rational observer in punditry, in terms of getting closer to some ideal of good political answers to problems.

Schenck said...

Right, but constant exposure to pundits with agendas is more likely to shape the public's view of a story. Of course, in a country with state-controlled media, the stories are more important because they are already more slanted than common commentary.

Wait... now that I think about it, if we didn't have citizen journalists, we'd be screwed.

Anthony Palmer said...

Hmmmm, I think both pundits and journalists are equally powerful, but their power affects different audiences.

Journalists take news and simplify it for people who don't follow news and current events as closely. They also determine what is and isn't news, and how much it should be covered.

Pundits are more useful as opinion-shapers for the in-crowd that can drive media narratives.

Pundits are essentially watchdogs for the media, as they can even drive its content. Average people probably could care less what Pundit X thinks. But media practicioners, politicians and other public figures are far more likely to care. After all, a lot of these pundits also have a voice in the media (Kristof, Broder, Robinson, Dowd, Krauthammer, etc.). So perhaps they have an even higher stature.

I really enjoy the mature discussions you all bring to this blog. I want to thank you again for keeping things civil, intelligent, and thought-provoking. I'm thinking about creating a second blog which would be more of a political roundtable that has multiple authors and can be an example of the way political discourse should be. What do you think of that?

(Maybe I'll turn that into another post.)

Brett said...

That sounds like a fascinating idea, Anthony. Of course, are you up to managing two blogs at once, in addition to work and family/social life?

You are probably right about pundits mainly shaping the politically involved group (which is still pretty broad - it includes everyone from politicians to people whose involvement in politics amounts to reading newspapers and voting). In terms of sheer viewers, most of the population just doesn't pay attention - compare the ratings of, say, Bill O'Reilly (usually the top pundit in terms of viewers, if I recall correctly) with that of, say, American Idol. It's not even a contest.

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