Cartoon riles Democrats

'New Yorker' says cover was meant to mock attacks on Obama

July 15, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

A satirical New Yorker cover cartoon picturing Barack Obama in the Oval Office dressed as a Muslim, his wife as a terrorist, and a portrait of Osama bin Laden hanging over a fireplace with a burning American flag elicited angry responses yesterday from the Democrat's presidential campaign and his supporters.

But The New Yorker defended the artist and its cover, which illustrates an article titled "The Politics of Fear," as a satirical look at the scare tactics and misinformation being used to derail Obama's campaign. The magazine noted that two serious articles on the candidate's political education and rise in Chicago accompany the piece.

"The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall? All of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that's the spirit of this cover," a New Yorker spokesman said in a written statement.

Obama's patriotism has been questioned during the campaign, such as after his initial refusal to wear a flag lapel pin - a decision he reversed - and when his wife, Michelle, told a rally audience in February that she was proud of America for the first time in her adult life.

Some Obama supporters called the cover shameful but doubted that it would affect the outcome of the election.

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who held senior roles in the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's run for the presidency, said the magazine editors knew they would create a firestorm with the image.

"The New Yorker tried to make some money," Walters said. "And they tried to do it at the expense of this couple. The bottom line here is money. And for many people, that just makes it more obnoxious. They just wanted to boost their circulation and sales. "

Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, said the magazine's moneymaking motives were obvious and that its claim of satire falls short. Vatz, who does not support Obama, said the cover was not clever or nuanced enough to be considered satirical.

"For those at the magazine, it may be sufficient justification to say that the cover is engendered by those who negatively and fraudulently attack Senator Obama, but it is really a transparent effort to sell magazines at the cost of the dignity of the principals on the cover," Vatz said.

Vatz said he did not believe the cover would hurt Obama's run for the presidency.

"Marginally, this might hurt him because it reinforces suspicions of some people that he is a Muslim radical," Vatz said. "Given the fact we're months away from the election, I don't think the effect will be significant."

According to a Pew poll taken in March, one American in 10 thought Obama is a Muslim, while 34 percent said they were unsure. In fact, Obama considers himself a Christian and was a longtime member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago before controversial statements by its outgoing pastor led the senator to quit this year.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the controversy over the magazine cover might dissuade Muslims or Arabs from volunteering or being associated with Obama's campaign.

"This stuff is out there. It's real. And it causes us harm. It impedes our opportunity to participate in the political process, and it does harm to Barack Obama, who happens to share a name with people who are Muslim although he's not."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he understands that the cover is satirical, but the images crossed the line.

Cummings, who is activly supporting Obama, said politicians are generally thick-skinned when it comes to these types of situations, but this may have bothered the Illinois senator .

"It plants so many seeds in so many minds; one of the seeds this planted is that there is something wrong with being Muslim, which is horrible. Then the seed of 9/11," Cummings said. "He's got to deal with that. He's going to be in a difficult position. But in the end, Barack will do what is right."

Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman, said: "The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff tried to explain 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."

Willis Edwards, an NAACP board member from Louisiana, said board members were so upset by the cover that they were urging their fellows to pass a resolution condemning the magazine.

Obama spoke at the NAACP's annual convention last night in Cincinnati.

Milt Priggee, a political cartoonist for 32 years who started at Chicago's Daily News, said he had been sued three times for his satire, and that there was no such thing as going too far. "A good cover should draw a reaction," he said.

Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she fails to see the "big deal."

"Caricatures are used as a form of political commentary frequently," she said. And using racial features as caricatures can be seen as offensive, such as when the Asian-American community protested a National Review cover in 1997 that depicted the Clintons and then-Vice President Al Gore as Chinese after a campaign finance scandal. "Any time you start using physical features as a commentary you're really treading on thin ice, because then you're equating physical features with some sort of behavior," McBride said.

Sun reporters Kelly Brewington and Liz F. Kay and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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