The New Yorker'scover illustration of the Obamas wigs out the chattering classes.

Media criticism.
July 14 2008 7:21 PM

The New Yorker Draws Fire

Barry Blitt's cover illustration of the Obamas wigs out the chattering classes.

The cover of the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. Click image to expand.

Sweet mercy me. The New Yorker has offended Barack Obama, John McCain, the New Republic, Jake Tapper, the Huffington Post, and the sensibilities of thousands—maybe millions!—of Americans.

The source of all of this injury is not daring exposé or cutting criticism by a New Yorker writer but one of "them damned pictures"—to quote Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, who bled pints every time he was poked by Thomas Nast's pen. "I don't care so much what the papers say about me," Tweed said of Nast's work. "My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!"

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The damned picture riling the country today is the cover of The New Yorker's just-released July 21 issue. Drawn by Barry Blitt, it depicts Barack Obama as a Muslim U.S. president knocking knuckles in the Oval Office with his AK-47-toting, Afro-wearing, revolutionary wife, Michelle. Blitt completes the tableau with an American flag roasting in the fireplace and a framed portrait of Osama bin Laden looking down from the wall.

Rather than appreciating the joke—TheNew Yorker was cataloging and sending up the most extreme and common of the anti-Obama smears—the Obama campaign issued a roar of indignation ("tasteless and offensive"). The opportunistic McCain campaign wasted not a minute in echoing with its own protest. In their denunciations, both campaigns continued on the path Slate's John Dickerson described back in February, when he identified taking umbrage as "this year's hottest campaign tactic." As Dickerson noted in his piece and in a follow-up, the candidates have professionalized the business of taking umbrage, capitalizing on the offenses—perceived or imagined—to issue a new round of fundraising letters.

Still, this week's incident veered from the Dickerson template in that the umbrage—make that the alleged umbrage—was issued by a third party. I can understand how the campaigns, which drilled themselves in the umbrage dance during the primaries, might have acted reflexively to the magazine cover, but what excuse do the journalists and bloggers who condemned The New Yorker have?

Although every critic of the New Yorker understood the simple satire of the cover, the most fretful of them worried that the illustration would be misread by the ignorant masses who don't subscribe to the magazine. Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm wrote, "That's the problem with satire. A lot of people won't get the joke. Or won't want to. And will use it for non-humorous purposes, which isn't the New Yorker's fault." Malcolm continues in this vein, calling it a "problem" that "there's no caption on the cover to ensure that everyone" will understand the punch line.

Here's ABC News' Jake Tapper singing the harmony line:

Intent factors into these matters, of course, but no Upper East Side liberal—no matter how superior they feel their intellect is—should assume that just because they're mocking such ridiculousness, the illustration won't feed into the same beast in emails and other media. It's a recruitment poster for the right-wing.

Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker's detractors desire. I don't know whether to be crushed by that realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture for himself.

How did we arrive at the point where a simple wisecrack like Blitt's causes such a hullabaloo? Has the public's taste for barbed drawings waned since the Paul Conrad, Herblock, Pat Oliphant, and Bill Mauldin heydays, or have the voices of the would-be bowdlerizers gotten stronger? Shall we don blinders and erect barriers so nobody is offended or misled?

Only weak thinkers fear strong images. The publication that convenes itself as a polite dinner party, serving only polenta and pureed peas, need not invite me to sup.

******

Richard Wright's epiphany after reading H.L. Mencken's Book of Prefaces in 1927: "Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon?" Send quotations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Blitt salad in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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