Monday, July 28, 2008

The New Yorker: Way Over Americans' Heads

I know I'm a bit late on covering the topic of the New Yorker's controversial cartoon cover of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, but given my journalism background, I felt the need to comment.

I first heard of the controversy on the morning news and as the image of the picture in question appeared on my television, I couldn't help but put my head in my hands and groan.

Not because I was offended. Not because I really think Obama is a Muslim terrorist and his wife is an aggressive militant. But because I know that there are Americans out there that do have these misconceptions about African Americans and Muslims. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to make that distinction between satire and reality.

Jon Friedman from MarketWatch was exactly on point when he wrote in his Media Web blog:

The magazine is sticking its finger in the eye of every bigot who hates the Obamas because they're African-Americans, every racist who seeks to polarize the electorate and every ignoramus who mistrusts the senator from Illinois without examining his record and background.

The New Yorker was indeed satirizing the ignorance of Americans who are quick to make generalizations and stereotypes without examining the underlying issues. But, as I suspected, there are many out there who will look at this magazine cover and say, "Look, Obama really is a Muslim terrorist!" It didn't take long for me to find videos on YouTube supporting this but I refuse to draw attention to specific ones because regardless of my political views, there is no need for such bigotry, hatred and stereotypes based on religion and skin color. If you so desire to seek such commentary, it'll be easy enough to come across.

Now the issue at hand is the New Yorker's role in publishing such a controversial cartoon. Journalism provides commentary on society, and a liberal publication such as the New Yorker is known to do that through its cartoons. But, given the sensitive nature of the cartoon and the inability for some to make the connection that it is satirical, should the New Yorker have expressed more caution? Where is the line of responsibility drawn?

I can't really say I have any solid answers for that and I'm pretty sure no one really does. The magazine cover has the potential to reinforce these negative stereotypes but as journalism, it is a great piece of social commentary. It's not the New Yorker's fault that some people can't get past their own biases and Obama unfortunately has to go on damage control over issues that are irrelevant to his presidency. In addition, Muslims have to fight off the stereotypes they've been battling since 9/11.

Then again, this controversy in itself proves the New Yorker's point in the first place.

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