A Reader Responds To New Yorker Cover Posts

By Justin Gardner | Related entries in Barack, Media, Satire

Via email, Eugene McCain (no relation) has this to say in response to posts by Alan and mw

I understand your position that this was satire and that Obama should have acknowledged that. In hindsight maybe that would have been best for his campaign.

But……

1. The Truth is that a large number (10%, 20%, 30%…. pick a number) of people that see the cover…… will, in fact, believe that it is making a statement about Obama, an opinion, not a satire. So, effectively, that cover has hurt his campaign by (unintentionally) further instilling mistruths about him.

2. The Cover satirizes Untruths that have been promulgated… over the past year by republicans, conservatives and the racially “insensitive”. The Editors defend it, as do you, by saying that it is “joking” about these untruths….essentially trying to help readers, thru the satire, see thru these untruths. But…. as stated above….for many Americans who see that cover…. it is convincing them of these untruths by giving a visualization of the untruths.

3. Perhaps unfair for Maddow (Countdown) to refer to Americans as being “stupid”….. wrong word….. but calling them “uninformed” is fair. And for the many, many uninformed Americans who merely see that cover on the news stand…. particularly those predisposed to fear of muslims….or fear of “black power” , the cover was fodder for their “uniformed cannons” and was very damaging for Obama.

4. result…… If the cover was not meant to harm, but to satirically inform….. it failed.

Conclusion:

Realistically….. If you wanted to inform, thru satire…. if you wanted to produce a cover to support a better informed electorate…. wouldn’t the cover have two pictures… that juxtaposed the ridiculous false images on one picture…. with the accurate images in another…..side by side. To not do this guaranteed that many would misunderstand it and allow it to become the very opposite of its intent…. a radically false and inflammatory derogation of Obama based on falsehoods regularly (not satirically) promoted thru the media and the anti obama camp.

The fact that there was no underlying indicator that this was meant as sarcasm/satire….. undoubtedly allowed many to see it as further reinforcement of falsehoods and slander.

One note about my own feelings on this since I haven’t posted about it…I do think the cover is clearly satire to the New Yorker’s traditional audience (of which I count myself a part of), but they should have realized that such a cartoon would have a much broader audience than some of their normal covers. So while I don’t find it personally offensive, I can see how others would.

Additionally, I do think it could serve to reinforce opinions with those voters who are uninformed and pay more attention to anonymous emails accusing Obama of being a secret Muslim than what the cover’s actual intent was.

What do you think?


This entry was posted on Friday, July 18th, 2008 and is filed under Barack, Media, Satire. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “A Reader Responds To New Yorker Cover Posts”

  1. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    I think it’s interesting how a lot of people have suggested ways the cover would have been better satire. These seem to always involve some kind of clarification that the cover is lampooning the idiots who believe the Obama rumors and not Obama himself. The problem is, satire fails if the satirist admits it’s satire. Satire works by toying with us, by making us think — often by shocking or disturbing us first. If it’s obvious, it’s not good satire.

    And here’s an important point: satire is not humor. It can be humorous but it is not a subset of humor. Neither is it parody (a la the recent jib jab video). Satire, at its best, takes one step into absurdity without being surreal. If The New York offered some clarification (visual or otherwise) on the cover, it’s no longer absurd and thus no longer satire. It’s just a visual representation of the story Obama supporters most want: that evil people are spreading lies. That would be an o.k. cover, but don’t call it satire.

    I understand why people got offended. It seemed unfair for The New Yorker to depict Obama in such a manner. And it seemed irresponsible to give visual representation to the lies.

    I say: so what? If there are idiots out there who don’t understand it is satire, then so be it. I don’t want my culture dumbed down because we’re afraid the lowest-common-denominator might misunderstand and be influenced the wrong direction. We don’t get a smarter country by dumbing down our culture.

    And finally .. to point 4 of the above post … the cover didn’t fail. It succeeded WILDLY. We just went through a week of the most in-depth debunking of the Obama rumors ever broadcast. That cover has done more to vanquish those rumors than would have any polite cover nicely clarifying that the artist was being satirical. So, hurray for satire. It works again.

  2. May Says:

    I think it was a very stupid move by the New Yorker. I’m surprised it made it to the magazine cover and it makes me think so much less of the magazine than I already did before.

  3. Justin Gardner Says:

    And finally .. to point 4 of the above post … the cover didn’t fail. It succeeded WILDLY. We just went through a week of the most in-depth debunking of the Obama rumors ever broadcast. That cover has done more to vanquish those rumors than would have any polite cover nicely clarifying that the artist was being satirical. So, hurray for satire. It works again.

    But Alan…only for those who are plugged in to the news cycle. For others who don’t necessarily pay attention, this cover could be used as a weapon. And if we were to compare this to Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal, it doesn’t hit the standard of being SO outlandish as to not be believed.

    After all, many on the right are painting these exact caricatures currently, and I bet some of them even halfway believe it. And we’re not talking about fringe players either. Obviously that exposes how intellectually dishonest they are, but nonetheless I GUARANTEE you that somebody in right wing o sphere used the cover to basically say, “Folks, this isn’t satire. There are too many unanswered questions about Obama and we can’t ignore them.”

    Do know I agree with most of what you’re saying, but it’s not as cut and dry as you’re portraying it.

  4. PWT Says:

    Although, those caricatures originally came from the left side of the electorate as they popped up during the democrats’ primary campaign. I’ve seen comments at many blogs in this vein, “Folks, this isn’t satire. There are too many unanswered questions about Obama and we can’t ignore them.” However, I haven’t yet seen any of that type of comment on the righty blogs. So, I believe that the whole episode shows that Mr. Obama has very thin skin and that his supporters do as well.

    And, really, how many people who are, not “plugged in to the news cycle” actually saw the cover, and of that group, how large is the subset of individuals that are too ignorant to understand the cover. Furthur, in the subset of ignoramuses, how many bother to vote? Probably very few.

  5. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Justin: But HOW will it be used against Obama? Are you thinking someone is going to steal the image, put it on postcards or emails and mail it out? Is that a realistically dangerous scenario? I mean, even if you BELEIVE those lies, it’s just a cartoon. It wouldn’t enhance the point behind those lies. And even the fact that The New Yorker’s name is on it doesn’t add much. I mean, are people who believe these lies really going to distnguish the credibility of The New Yorker from, I dunno, Radical Right Weekly?

    It seems to me that people are making HUGE conjectures to believe this is somehow going to filter out into the world and be any more damaging than the lies already circulating. The only provable effect of this cover is that LOTS of news agencies covered it with loud and frequent reminders that the lies are completely untrue. That’s a pretty positive effect.

    People are afraid of this cover based on the hypothetical effect they believe it might have. That’s ridiculous. That’s arguing for a standard of self-censorship that I can’t accept.

    As for the level of satire it reaches, I think it could have been more outlandish but, really, it’s pretty far into the absurd. Too much further and it just becomes surreal.

    O.k. That’s it. I’m SO tired of this topic. We can all hope that next week’s issue of the New Yorker has a nice cute bunny rabbit on it.

  6. Show Me Says:

    I think that you could have left it at “stupid”

    The New Yorker mag is pretty much a mag of intellectuals but it is up and front in magazine newstands… though, I don’t think it gets much play down here in “redneck” country, South Carolina….

    The people who have secretly harbored the thought that Obama was a muslim will use this as proof….
    The people who would never vote for a black man to be POTUS will use this as a justification that they aren’t really bigots or racists…
    The people who want to exploit the “stupid” America’s fears will us it as a jumping point to clarify their position because they will have no context to research with…

    I searched in vain for some explanation to the cover in the New Yorker.. there was none… you had to go inside the cover to see the title of the “cartoon”… The politics of Fear…. and, even then… what does that tell me? What does it does tell me is the the New Yorker was totally irresponsible in doing this cover without involving the portion of the nation that espouses these beliefs….
    they should have had some pot bellied trailer park guy watching Fox News with his Budweiser…. and on that tube would be the Obamas kissing and fist bumping on his nomination night…. then they should have had the “bubble” of that front page cover coming out of the beer bellied redneck coming out of his head.

  7. wj Says:

    In all the comments about the cover, I see minimal consideration of what seems to me to be the salient issue:
    Is the New Yorker primarily a business, or is it primarily published in order to move opinion?

    All of the comments seem to assume that the publishers of the New Yorker are indifferent to how successful their business is, so long as they can successfully impact opinion in the direction that they prefer. Which, if that assumption is correct, means that what matters is whether the cover helps or hurts their preferred candidate.

    But suppose, just for the sake of discussion, that what they are really trying to do is run a business. For a business, what is important is selling more magazines (increased circulation improves advertising revenue, which is what actually brings in the money). For which the first step, and what all covers are intended for, is to get the attention of potential purchasers. If this assumption is correct, then this cover has been among the most wildly successful in years. For any magazine. It has definitely gotten attention.

    So, does anyone have anything resembling hard data on what the purpose of the New Yorker is, in the minds of its publishers?

  8. Mudslide Says:

    Let’s assume that what the New Yorker wanted to do was sell magazines. After all that’s why they are in business. I believe this is going to hurt their bottom line miserably. There is much talk on left-wing talk shows about people canceling their subscriptions to the New Yorker. Why I would enjoy an intellectual magazine with a left leaning agenda, I would not subscrib to this magazine now. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor but because I felt this particular satire would not be viewed as such by many people seeing it on the shelf. There are still more than 10 percent of those polled who believe Obama is a muslim, and this is where I’m supposed to say ‘which there is nothing wrong with being a muslim’. The fact is that being a muslim in America after 9/11 is a problem for someone seeking to be POTUS or for that matter any elected office. Obama being black is enough of an impediment against getting elected with some poeple. If he were muslim he would stand no chance at all. He has been fighting these rumors all along and this front page article is going to set this fight back.

  9. mw Says:

    @showme – The cover absolutely needs no explanation because it is entirely self-explanatory in and of itself. That is what a satirical cartoon does. Explaining the joke inside the cover of the magazine is absurd. They have felt no need to do so for the last eighty years of publishing, why would they do it for this cover?

    @all @Justin
    I am completely with Alan on this one. That cover was so over the top that it cannot be seen as anything but what it was – a brilliant smackdown of the inanities spewed about Obama from the rabid right.

    In fact, the target and intent of the cover is so obvious, that you have to wonder what is really going on with the negative over-reaction from some on the left.

    As I said before, the story here is not the cartoon itself, but this incredible intense hand-wringing reaction by a portion of the Obama base as exemplified by Eugene’s e-mail and other comments in response to this and other posts on the subject.

    I don’t need to add to what I said about this over the top reaction in my prior post. This New York Times article nails it:

    “When The New Yorker came into being in the 1920s, its founder, Harold Ross, held up Dubuque as the sort of backwater he wanted nothing to do with. Ross, with Eustace Tilley nose in the air, said the magazine would not be “edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” Not surprisingly, Dubuquers thought it terribly snooty of him, not to mention unfair. But they know enough to recognize satire.

    “Yeah, we get it in Dubuque,” Mr. Rusk said by phone. “Anybody with a reasonable sense of humor” does. “The New Yorker, which touts itself, accurately, to be a highly intellectualized and savvy sort of a publication, ought to be able to get away with that,” he said. “If they can’t, who can?”

    Score one for Dubuque, which is more than you can say about some people in this city. Let’s not even go into the reflexive condemnations of the drawing from Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain. Both know that you can hardly go wrong in national politics attacking a publication like The New Yorker and those smart-alecky fops who read it and think they’re better than everyone else. The thing is, though, that some who have accused the magazine of elitism are themselves elitists. They include outraged writers of letters to the editor who talk about Mr. Obama in near-Messianic terms. Some of them strongly suggest that too many Americans lack the brains to recognize the illustration for what it is, and will think it to be literally true.

    Exactly right. Per my pervious post – Jonathon Alter = Elitist. Rachel Maddow = Elitist.

    And – For those who criticize the New Yorker cover on the basis of not unduly influencing those poor “low-information” voters? For those who feel that the less intellectually gifted unfortunates out there must be shielded from images like this because they might not understand it? For those who fear that others do not have their wisdom to see that Obama’s election is so very important that his graven image is not to be taken in vain?

    Well – if the shoe fits…

  10. Avery Moore Says:

    I think two commenters made a fair and accurate assessment of the New Yorker debacle.. wj & Mudslide

    Put country simple, the July cover was a disaster. In editorial, creativity, and marketing terms it was the New Yorker’s “Edsel Promotion.” But the product was so dumb, ugly, and ill-conceived that it was not just ignored, it was repudiated, en masse. It did not provoke laughter or stimulate introspection – it provoked widespread contempt and disgust. The audience wasn’t buying and the New Yorker failed to cope very well with the results.

    To describe that cover – compared to one by a Steinberg or other brilliant New Yorker regulars – as ‘witty’ or ‘intelligent’ or ‘just-so-obviously-slick!’, besides suggesting omniscient reign over what is ART, assumes far too much about what others expect New Yorker readers to ‘appreciate.’ Clearly, those very readers refused to buy a Pythonesque “dead parrot on a perch” – regardless of its “Norwegian Blue” heritage – or, despite very persuasive attempts to explain it’s not breathing: believe it was anything but dead.

    But it got worse. The defense to deflate the subscriber outrage has been, well, pathetic when not merely circular. It wasn’t widely known before now, but apparently all New Yorker subscribers are clairvoyant and absolutely ‘must have known’ what the editor ‘intended’ – or else? They are just… ‘stupid.’

    A simple enough syllogism: How could dumb people ever belong to the true New Yorker, highly literate, upper income, hip, urban, artsy-fartsy, no-yokels-here demographic? Such readers’ delicate and refined tastes must be clearly understood by management, thus no astute selection of cover art could possibly offend such an elite group. Together they form an unified collective, a team who all believe the same things..

    So what happened?

    Now consider the reverse view. The demographic described is largely correct. But when readers blew their collective stack it was precisely for that reason – that very specific demographic won’t tolerate an editor playing school marm and pedantically spoon-feeding electoral pablum to them.

    As events proved – it was reckless to assume readers wouldn’t react as they did. And the New Yorker’s reputation was burned.

    The result? To date New Yorker’s Edsel-apologetics-management seems particularly un-astute. and apparently retains insufficient sense to remember – as both wj and Mudslide point out – that the business is a BUSINESS. Ergo, when their particular ‘product’ is deemed abhorrent by their consumers – this adds considerable downside to the company’s financial viability.

    And why would July be a good time, at the same moment when their advertising base is shrinking, to provoke loyal readers to abandon their subscriptions – by insulting them?

    Good planning? Sound crisis management?

    To expand on wj’s and Mudslide’s point, a business – apparently in deep trouble. The Independent of London itemized some of the problems in David Usborne’s article, “The New Yorker: So can a joke be funny when no one is laughing?”

    “..advertising pages in The New Yorker were down a shocking 21.2 per cent through its 7 July issue compared with the same period last year. It is registering an annual ad-page count of 699, against 2,200 pages in 2002.“

    Is this a result owners want to see?

    A sliding number of advertising pages – and this latest blowback – both are especially damaging to a New Yorker apparently tottering on life support. Media buyers use such data and back-channel gossip to calculate the worth and risk of potential buys. Companies considered ad-worthy must demonstrate a solid, loyal, stable, affluent, growing readership. Now? With incredible hubris the New Yorker is shedding that audience!

    It is naive for any business to assume they own a very sophisticated upscale niche market: it is utterly mad for any business to turn a niche enterprise into one whose future advertising revenue – after blowback – at most might support a glossy pamphlet.

    Unlike Jon Stewart’s counter-complaint – “Look, It’s just a cartoon, OK?” Close but no cigar. I don’t believe that those readers – many of whom watch Stewart and Colbert – who denounced the cover – “in huge numbers” – got it wrong.

    Readers don’t need to be reassured by the New Yorker about whether they clearly understand the grotesque propaganda warfare conducted prior to elections. They see it everywhere and are sick of it. To suggest that they couldn’t see such an obvious truth without a Pavlovian front page to make them salivate – was stupid. But even as the New Yorker defines what is claimed they “meant” – the attempt to pander and patronize on that front page was sophomoric and insulting – an experiment too witless to do anything but fail.

    The facts, though disputed when not sidestepped and ignored, are simple – The cover flopped. It miserably failed to accomplish it’s objective. What it did was make readers hostile.

    Management then made it worse by an implausible refusal to accept any responsibility – for failure or insult – or just acknowledge that the cartoon didn’t work. When that was followed by insinuating that readers were too dumb to ‘get it.’ it redoubled the insult to New Yorker’s demographic.

    Emailed complaints, I sent two, were met with the now typically-corporate ‘obtuse monarchical attitude’ – a variation on Alfred E. Neuman’s – ‘What? Me, Wrong? ME?!’

    Questioning readers’ (whose subscriptions generate ad revenue to pay New Yorker Magazine’s salaries) inability to understand an editor’s hipness on Art and Politics? In simple business terms – PR suicide.

    The solution to the gaffe always was simple and adult. The New Yorker promptly could have issued generous apologies: first to Obama, next to their readership. Now?

    I’ll leave the last word to David Usborne -

    “…what would have worried Remnick more were the smattering of reports, none substantiated, that Condé Nast, the magazine’s publisher, had been inundated with complaints – not just from readers (and they did grumble in huge numbers) but also advertisers.“

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