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New Yorker Editor David Remnick Could have Learned From Imus on Obama Cover

Posted by: David Kiley on July 15, 2008


In running its satirical cover of Barack and Michelle Obama this week, the New Yorker seems to have forgotten one important ingredient of really good satire. It has to be funny, as well as thoughtful.

As any comedy writer will tell you, comedy relies a great deal on timing. Where the New Yorker went wrong is launching the cover amidst news reports that some 30% of those polled either think Obama is a Muslim, attended a Muslim school or took his Congressional oath with his hand on the Koran. And sound-bites of “I don’t care what he says, his midde-name is Hussein and that says AyRab to me,” were not hard to find from factory workers in Ohio and ladies getting their hair done in West Virgina during those primaries. I saw such sound-bites on MSNBC, CNN and Fox news packages during those primaries.

As I watched New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick explain the definition of satire to the news cameras yesterday, I couldn’t help think of Don Imus and the lesson Remnick might have learned from the morning radio personality.

In April of last year, Imus infamously called the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball
Players “nappy headed hos.” Any one who had listened to Imus and his cast for the years I had would have known that Imus was engaged in a seriously tricky and complicated form of satire in which you make fun of people (racists) by showing them how stupid they sound…by taking on the persona and language of the offender yourself. Or in the case of The New Yorker cover illustration, showing people who believe the Obamas are militant blacks that they aren’t by creating the most offensive stereotypical image you could think of.

Even good satire and comedy can be too clever by half to where the point has been lost. I recall about fifteen years ago, I sent an e-mail to a co-worker. We had recently experienced a hub-bub over a reporter who sent a derogatory e-mail about an editor to the editor in question by mistake. We laughed about it. Some weeks later, I sent this colleague an e-mail about her to her on purpose, though I had addressed it to another colleague. The colleague I thought I was having fun with never believed I had sent it on purpose, and our relationship was never the same. I was too clever by half.

This week’s New Yorker cover was a risky image to put on a magazine cover. And Lord, deliver us from magazine editors who don’t want to take risks, especially on the covers of their publications. But this is a rare case where I would have encouraged Remnick to test the reception of the cover with some people outside the magazine. The New Yorker is supposed to be a clever magazine. And it is. It could be that it might have been better received after the election, whether Obama wins or loses. But right now, the issue of Obama being defined just the way the New Yorker cover does is too raw a nerve for many Americans. Even as I spellcheck this blog entry, my spellchecker is offering me “Osama” as a replacement for “Obama.”

I get what Remnick was thinking. He was trying to explode the myth of Obama being a Muslim and militant black. And many will argue that what he did was perfectly appropriate. I heard one writer friend of mine say, “*&^%$ them if they don’t get the joke."

But perhaps we have had to many sentences from Dems and Republicans alike that started with *&^%$ them. And here we are in an energy and housing meltdown in an election year that has robbed many of us of ours senses of humor and irony. Perhaps the memory of Mike Huckabee's "joke" at the National Rifle Association meeting about someone taking a shot at Obama (on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assasinations) is still in an uncomfortable place in our recent memories. Perhaps, even the memory of Hillary Clinton suggesting she should stay in the race until the convention "in case" anything happens to Obama, made most of us feel so uncomfortable and squeamish that we aren't quite ready for satire.

I notice that I don't see the cover image when I go to the New Yorker website.

This cover was probably too clever by a factor of two, and strayed into a toxic field of flat out offense rather than provocateurship.

Reader Comments


July 15, 2008 6:49 PM

The only reason that this Mr. & Mrs. Obama satire DOES have impact — and may very likely spread — is because like all good satire, or good humor for that matter, there’s more than a germ of truth in it. Otherwise, the satire would utterly roll off the Obamoids’ backs, having no impact.


July 16, 2008 11:00 PM

The New Yorker has always been very favorable to liberals so it's pretty obvious that this image is indeed satirical. But the problem for the Obamas (as seen in the first comment to the post), is that so many people believe the myth, they would see a liberal-friendly publication running a cover like this as confirmation of the image they have for Barack and Michelle in their minds. A sort of "if the dirty commies of the New Yorker run this, it must be true!"

Obama, fully realizing this, wanted to minimize the damage by creating a firestorm over the cover and using it as a platform to deny the nasty remarks about him and his wife. Mr. Remnick just found himself in the middle of a much bigger battle than he expected. He was sure his audience understood the intent as loyal New Yorker readers like long, detailed articles and nuanced, almost pretentious IQ humor and hence, they should've been able to get this barb quite easily.


July 31, 2008 6:12 PM

This reaction is entirely based on (1) bigotry and (2) the adoration of the blessed Barack.

The satire on the cover is obvious. Its intent is not to mock Obama, of course, but to mock people who believe that Obama is disloyal to America. By going so over the top, it's ridiculing people who are (in the artist's view) so foolish and so benighted that they would believe such a thing.

But the bigotry in the reaction is when you say, "Yes, of course, *I* understand that it's satirical, but those redneck hicks in Mississippi with four dogs on the porch and their inbred wives barefoot in the kitchen...they won't realize this. They are so unbelievably dense that they will read this as confirmation of their views."

That's nothing short of bigotry. A very small percentage actually believe that Obama is a Muslim (blending together those who believe he's a Muslim with those who believe he went to a Muslim school (while in Indonesia) is just dishonest; the relevant statistic is how many believe he is Muslim, not how many believe he went to a Muslim school). But even those who do believe that Obama is Muslim are hardly going to look at a cover that shows him burning the flag and hanging a UBL poster on the wall and think, "Ah, well, there's the proof."

Trying to tie this in with fear of assassination is disingenuous. It has nothing to do with it. The reason liberals responded this way is because they are completely protective of BO and don't want anything to mess up his ride to the White House.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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