Religion & Politics

Case Study: The New Yorker magazine cover, July 21, 2008


A controversy and public uproar all because of a drawing.

The July 21, 2008 issue of the American magazine The New Yorker ran a cover cartoon drawing of then-United States presidential candidate Barack Obama. Illustrator Barry Blitt drew Obama dressed in Muslim robes, with a turban on his head. In the picture he is “fist bumping” his wife Michelle. She is shown wearing the fatigues of a revolutionary, with a machine gun and ammunition belt slung around her body. The couple is depicted standing in the Oval Office--the office of the U.S. President. Behind them a painting of Osama bin Laden hangs on the wall. An American flag burns in the fireplace.

new yorker coverAccording to The New Yorker press release for the issue, the cover “satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.”

The cover sparked a furor. Despite a lengthy inside article on Obama, all the conversation centered on the cartoon. Obama’s campaign denounced the drawing as “tasteless and offensive.” Then-Republican Presidential candidate John McCain called it “totally inappropriate.” Los Angeles City Councilman, Bernard Parks Sr, said, “it’s outrageous that we’d have a cover that would depict racism, sexism, anti-religion, also anti-patriotism.” 

Blogs all over the world commented on the cover. A woman in England called the drawing “a step too far.” A man in Australia said the cartoon was a “disgustingly cheap attempt to smear the Obamas.” A man in Shanghai said it was “a poor choice by the editor” and added that the main problem was that the cartoon was placed on the cover with no explanation—instead of inside the magazine with some contextual information.

Barack Obama himself told CNN’s lead interviewer Larry King that while “I know it was The New Yorker’s attempt at satire. I don’t think they were entirely successful with it.” Obama also said the cartoon was, “an insult to Muslim-Americans.”

The editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, defended the cover by arguing that “the idea is to attack lies and misconceptions and distortions about the Obamas and their background and their politics. We’ve heard all of this nonsense about how they’re supposedly insufficiently patriotic or soft on terrorism.” Barry Blitt defended his cartoon stating, “It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is.”

The “nonsense” that Remnick was talking about had circulated throughout several year-long span of Obama’s presidential campaign. There were continuing media reports and chain emails charging that Obama was really a Muslim and, by implication, a closet terrorist. He was said to have attended a “radical Muslim” madrassa as a child.

For many Americans, these efforts to draw connections between Obama and Islam instilled fears that Obama was in league with terrorists. Even mainstream media fueled the Muslim terrorist talk about Obama. CBS TV news anchor Katie Couric asked her audience if America “was ready to elect a president who grew up praying in a mosque.” On a FOX News broadcast E.D. Hill called Obama and his wife’s “fist bump” a “terrorist fist jab.”

In response to such comments in the media Obama said, “I have repeatedly said I'm not a Muslim, but this whole strategy of suggesting that I am is indicative of anti-Muslim strategy that we have to fight against.”

CNN sent an international correspondent to Jakarta, Indonesia to investigate the rumors about Obama’s early education. Obama lived in Indonesia from 1967-1971. The reporter talked to the headmaster at the Basuki school that Obama attended. The headmaster said, “This is a public school. We don't focus on religion. In our daily lives, we try to respect religion, but we don't give preferential treatment." A former classmate of Obama’s called the school general saying, “There is a lot of Christians, Buddhists, also Confucian. ... So that's a mixed school."