Monday, July 14, 2008
What were they thinking?
That's what a lot of people are asking today about this week's New Yorker cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as Muslim terrorists, with a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hanging over the mantle and an American flag burning in the fireplace.
Both the artist, Barry Blitt, and the New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, are defending the cartoon as satire. According to their press release, it "satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama's campaign."
Yeah, right. The old can't-you-take-a-joke excuse.
Let's be clear about this. If the New Yorker really meant to satirize the smear campaign against Obama, it would have lampooned the perpetrators, not the victim. Instead of mocking this capaign, the New Yorker has joined it.
Which brings us back to the question: Why did they do it?
Some people say they're racists. But although the cartoon drips with racism, I don't think that's the real reason. I think the answer is much simpler: sheer desperation.
It's no secret that print journalism is dying. Newspapers all over the country are laying off staffers by the score, and the magazines aren't far behind.
The most ominous trend is among the desirable 18-to-34 demographic, who long ago abandoned print media in favor of the Internet and TV programs like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
So how does a magazine like the New Yorker get them back?
The obvious answer is to provide content that young people are interested in reading.
But that costs money. It would mean paying reporters to do serious investigative work. But these days, magazines and newspapers are looking for ways to cut labor costs, not increase them.
So they're opting for the cheap fix, instead. I can just picture those aging Baby Boomer editors sitting around a table, scratching their heads and asking each other helplessly, "What in the world do these kids want?"
And the answer they've come up with is to become hipper. The buzzword of the day is "edgy."
So snarky is in; sincere is out. Everything is fair game for mockery, even if it means turning Michelle Obama into a gun-toting Angela Davis.
I'm sure Remnick & Co. are congratulating themselves today for their success de scandal. Circulation will doubtless increase in the short run - say, for a week - as people snap up issues to find out what all the shouting is about.
But in the not-so-long run, it's only going to drive away those coveted younger readers even faster.
The rest of us might be back to business as usual, but the younger generation hasn't forgotten 9/11. It was the defining event of their lives, and the lesson they drew from it was that America can no longer afford the cynical culture wars of the Boomer generation.
They hunger for straight talk and sincere efforts to bridge the old divisions. They're attracted to people and ideas that unite us, not divide us.
That's why they flocked to Obama in the first place.
And that's why they're not going to read the New Yorker. To use the most damning words in their vocabulary, it's so 20th Century.
Today in history: A Paris mob stormed the Bastille prison this day in 1789, freeing a grand total of seven prisoners and kicking off the French Revolution. Brigitte Bardot married her third husband, Gunther Sachs, in 1966.
Births: Andrea del Sarto (1486), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858), Irving Stone (1903), Woodie Guthrie (1912), Gerald Ford (1923), Ingmar Bergman (1918) and John Chancellor (1927).
Deaths: King Kamehameha II of Hawaii (1823), Paul Kruger (1904) and Adlai Stevenson (1965).