The New Yorker Cover Up

Why we’re talking so much about so little

It’s hard to know what to make of the week’s early outrage over the New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas. By now, you’ve seen it. Michelle (with afro, AK and bandolier) gives a celebratory fist bump to hubby Barack (clad in “native garb”) in front of a gilt-framed portrait of Bin Laden, with a burning flag tucked in the Oval Office fireplace.

And you’ve undoubtedly seen the ensuing coverage, blared across the cable networks and on the front page of The New York Times. Here at CJR, we fielded phone calls asking for comment from places as far afield as Mexico and Dubai.

My reaction: All this for a cartoon? A remarkably self-explanatory cartoon?

But it seems plenty of people (though not Stephen Colbert!) disagree.

Still, I can’t help but feel that much of the outrage, and certainly most of the outrage that’s been mined by the media churn, traces back to and takes its lead from this short statement from Obama pressmeister Bill Burton:

The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.

Absent that, could this level of attention be justified? After all, it’s hard to be offended if the target doesn’t feel aggrieved. The cover may well have met with little notice had Obama or his campaign brushed it off or—imagine this!—embraced it for what it was intended to be, and what it was to me: a visual shorthand of the campaign’s “Fight the Smears” site. Obama, too, has made jokes covering this ground, opening his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with a warning about false viral emails targeting him, before earning laughs by cracking “let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty scary.”

Of course, there’s a difference between joking about yourself and having someone else do it for you (or to you). But the candidate’s AIPAC speech shows some level of comfort with using humor as a tool to rebut these anti-Obama fantasies, an aspect totally missing from Burton’s response.

And with that in mind, it’s interesting to contrast Burton’s official joust with the candidate’s own non-reaction the first time he was asked about the cover, by NBC’s Athena Jones. For whatever reason (he hadn’t seen it? he didn’t think it was worthy of a response? he got the joke—maybe even saw its value—but didn’t quite want to sanction it?), Obama gave a shrug and said, “I have no response to that.” Good way to kill a story, that.

Obama’s dismissal came before Burton’s statement, which, along with the McCain campaign’s echoing response (“tasteless and offensive”) ensured that Monday would be a Bastille Day’s worth of umbrage.

As Slate’s John Dickerson pointed out in a prescient February piece, this campaign season has been one of umbrage; a year where claiming offense can be a way of playing on the offensive: “[I]f done correctly, candidates can exploit flamboyant displays of public upset to gain attention, raise money, put their opponents on the defensive, and distract from an unfavorable story.”

Distract from an unfavorable story, you say? This week’s New Yorkerfeatures two Obama peice tucked behind that cover. One is a clear-headed Talk of the Town by Hendrik Hertzberg, rebutting recent “Obama is a flip-flopper” charges, a defense with which Obama’s campaign would surely have no problem.

The other? A 15,000-word profile of Obama’s pre-Senate years by Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s campaign specialist. This half-book’s-worth of reportage shows Obama networking, cozying up to the powerful and the wealthy, laying groundwork in Chicago for his success, from the South Side to the Gold Coast. Some choice quotes:

“Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself…”

“[P]art of Obama’s success is that he has been able to exploit relationships with ethically dubious figures…”

“Obama had won his first campaign by using old-fashioned Chicago machine tactics … [that] literally provided voters with access to food, health care, and a job.”

“[E]very stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”

There’s more. Lizza explains how Obama worked with a redistricting consultant to swap poor neighborhoods from his state senate district in favor of wealthier neighborhoods— which happen to be filled with people who can finance expensive campaigns for higher office—and he coins the term “Obamaism”: a statement “superficially critical of some unseemly aspect of the political process without necessarily forswearing the process itself.”

Is any of that criminal, or especially dastardly, or even atypical? No. But it’s certainly unflattering, and certainly contradictory to Obama’s campaign coin—Hope, Change, Progress and all that. So, if you’re an Obama operative, you might posit that the press only has room to discuss one New Yorker-based narrative per week. Which would you rather have everyone talking about? An image-slashing profile that could fix a negative frame around your candidate, or a cartoon that won’t cost you a thing (are those people willing to buy the cover’s representation as reality really within Obama’s reach?) while simultaneously rallying your supporters?

And so luckily for Obama, umbrage is in the air. Everyone’s watching the sideshow, and missing the main event. And what a glitzy sideshow it is! All of the old campaign culture-war chattering class favorites are here. You’ve got class and regional issues, as Coastal with a capital-C journalists and pundits air ire against the hometown magazine (while skipping over the fact that 81 percent of its circulation is outside the New York metro area). There’s Radicalism—Gregory Lee Johnson would be proud! Race—that ‘fro! Religion, natch. There’s just so much to talk about!

Through it all, credit to New Yorker editor David Remnick, and his colleague Hertzberg, for engaging, again and again, with the cartoon’s critics. This has been no fortress journalism, the-piece-speaks-for-itself lockdown. But that choice, too, has given this distracting controversy-that-shouldn’t-be more legs, further moving the spotlight from Lizza’s article.

And should Barack and Michelle Obama make it to the Oval Office, all the misplaced attention may be reason enough for a celebratory fist bump.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.