A magazine cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorist sympathizers has drawn outrage from within the media and from watchdog groups, including calls for a boycott.
The July 21 New Yorker features a cartoon by illustrator Barry Blitt, showing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee dressed in Muslim garb. In the illustration, Obama’s wife, Michelle, is sporting a large afro, has an assault rifle strapped across her shoulder with ammunition strapped across her chest. The two are depicted standing in the Oval Office, doing the now famous “fist bump,” as an American flag burns in a fireplace and a picture of Osama bin Laden adorns the wall.
The Obama campaign issued a statement Monday saying the magazine's editors “may think … 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.”
The McCain campaign also denounced the cover Monday.
But then, on Tuesday, Obama himself downplayed the controversy on CNN.
“It's a cartoon … and that's why we've got the First Amendment,” Obama told CNN. “And I think the American people are probably spending a little more time worrying about what's happening with the banking system and the housing market and what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, than a cartoon. So I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it.’’
He continued on CNN, saying, “I've seen and heard worse. I do think that, you know, in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead. But, you know, that was their editorial judgment.”
The New Yorker released its own statement saying, “Our cover, ‘The Politics of Fear’ combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are. … 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.”
The statement points out that the issue contains “two very serious articles on Barack Obama,” including an in-depth piece by reporter Ryan Lizza on Obama's political rise in Chicago.
Still, some in the media pointed to the interior content to debunk the editors' claim.
“[W]on't some readers see this attention-grabbing device as a slur against Obama?” Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in his Monday column. “There is no editor's note,” and the cover art has “nothing to do with the accompanying article.”
The New Yorker's explanation failed to mollify critics, including a coalition of civil rights groups who plan to call for a boycott of the magazine, its advertisers, and the retail outlets that carry it.
“I just think that satire's just a great excuse for an insensitive piece,” said Paul Porter, founder of IndustryEars, which monitors negative depictions of African Americans in the media, and which is leading the call for a boycott. “It's a poor excuse to sell magazines.”
Porter said he doubted most Americans would get the satire.
A July10 Newsweek poll found that 12 percent of respondents believe that Obama swore his Senate oath of office on a Koran, or that he is a practicing Muslim. Thirty-nine percent believe he attended an Islamic school in Indonesia, and 26 percent believe he was raised as a Muslim. All four assertions are false, but each has been included in viral emails meant to disparage the candidate.
Obama's patriotism has been questioned during the campaign, including allegations that he has ties to American and Muslim extremists.
McCain and his surrogates, including Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, have claimed that Obama's candidacy is supported by the Palestinian organization Hamas, which the U.S. government labels a terrorist group.
“Perception is reality these days, and the average person isn't going to read the article,” said Porter.
Critics also charge the cover insults Muslims.
“Without question it feeds into the negative stereotypes concerning Islam, and demonizes those who practice [the faith]” said Najee Ali, 45, founder and president of Project Islamic H.O.P.E., which is joining the boycott, along with the National Action Network and other groups.
Ali said the cover “feed[s] into what the right are smearing the Obamas with every day.”
But Dr. Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist and director of the university's African American Leadership Institute, cast doubt on the effectiveness of a boycott.
“The New Yorker has essentially a liberal audience, and if you look inside the magazine, the article is actually pretty good,” he said. “I think the publisher has gotten it, that this was certainly dumb.”
Walters said the flap illustrates the lack of diversity in America's newsrooms.
“They make these mistakes because they don't vet what they're trying to do against the black population, and I don't know if they've got anybody black inside the New Yorker to advise them,” he said.
Walters said the magazine's editors were naïve.
“[The cover] was not perceived as just satire, but as a racial attack, and it legitimized something they say they're against,’’ he said. “I think it's a lesson for them if they try to do it again.”