Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The New Yorker thinks you're stupid

I'm not on board with the explanations of illustrator Barry Blitt and The New Yorker regarding this week's cover caricaturing the Obamas as militant flag-burning terrorists. My complaint is not with the image alone, but rather with the bungled delivery of its supposed message, and The New Yorker's defense that the cartoon was simply misunderstood. Both Blitt and the magazine claim that the image was a satire aimed at those who create false impressions of the Democratic candidate. If this was in fact the case, the lampoon proves to be poorly executed and ineffective: it missed its mark completely (the media), ricocheting toward the very people it purportedly defends (the Obamas).

The cartoon’s visual humor is ambiguous, and its front-cover placement—sans headline, in keeping with The New Yorker tradition—only adds to the confusion. Had it been paired with an explanatory article or even some type of caption clarifying the image’s intent, a great deal of misinterpretation could have been averted. At a first glance, the cover works to play up rather than send up the media attacks.

Since, in the public consciousness, the idea of Obama-as-Manchurian-candidate has not been dispelled, it’s understandable that a reader might take the cartoon’s meaning the wrong way. Its comedy is too subtle: For some, the scene might not be read as preposterous, but rather somewhat plausible. The target of the criticism is also too vague. In order to know that the media is being parodied, the scene needs to change in some way. Something aside from Barack and his wife need to be so instantly jarring, so obviously a crack at the media, that the reader couldn’t possibly take the scene as an attack on the prominent couple. Ultimately, the problem with the illustrations is that this joke about sensationalism, as presented by the creators, is an inside one—and much of the nation is not in on it.

No good ad-man would ever think this situation was merely accidental. As a visual communicator, I find the circumstances highly suspect. It's unconvincing that both an experienced political cartoonist and a major US publication could have so grossly misjudged the public reception of this cover. Perhaps the illustration was never actually intended to be an attack on the media: Could The New Yorker just be cynically exploiting rumors about Obama to generate press and sell magazines? When confronted for being incendiary—rather than owning up to their sensationalizing—the magazine insinuates that the public isn’t sophisticated enough to get the joke. I call shenanigans.


John said...


I agree, the cover was poorly executed. It requires viewers to make a big cognitive leap without providing sufficient visual cues to guide them.

If anything, though, I think the publishers were giving viewers too much credit, expecting that they'd be able to parse out the message of an ambiguous image.

Whether the image's ambiguity results from poor judgment on behalf of the illustrator and editors, or more unwholesome reasons (controversy = sales) is another question. I'm inclined to think it was a combination of the two.

- John

bestgroceries said...

i agree with john's comment above; the artwork may indeed give too much credit to readers and/or viewers. i also believe that the cover was inappropriate. but, i have begun to wonder if publishing this cover was a good move. my reasonings are as follows: this discussion gives the obama campaign a chance to practice their response to such idiocracy, and gives the public awareness of this discussion before debates and serious ramp-up of the presidential campaigns.