That New Yorker Cover

PUBLISHED: July 18, 2008

According to my unofficial count, this is the 1,847th published commentary about the New Yorker's Obama cover. It thus beats the previous record of 1,846 pieces relating to the cover of Sports Illustrated's 1994 Swimsuit Edition.

The current New Yorker cover, of course, depicts Barack Obama as a turban-wearing Muslim, Michelle Obama as a gun-toting militant, and the American flag aflame under a portrait of Osama bin Laden - all in the Oval Office.

Among the fascinating factoids to emerge from this tempest: the majority of op-eds and analytical pieces about the drawing ran before the New Yorker magazine reached most of its subscribers. This says more about the state of print journalism than it does about politics. Here's a case in which a "published" drawing is distributed electronically in advance of its printing, analyzed to death by cablecasters and bloggers, and even defended by the magazine's editor in numerous interviews, all prior to physical distribution. Controversial or not, this issue was dead on arrival.

Several cartoonists, such as David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had parodies of the parody in print before the New Yorker parody was distributed. (Horsey deftly drew John McCain in a wheelchair, his pill-popping wife Cindy nearby, Dick Cheney's picture on the wall, and the Constitution burning in the fireplace.)

Although the New Yorker didn't arrive in our California mailbox until Thursday, its cover was dinner table conversation on Tuesday. Danny, a student of the pop-culture period during which his parents grew up, wondered if our New Yorker would come with an innocuous cover pasted over the original - as happened with copies of the Beatles' 1966 album "Yesterday and Today." (The original cover, depicting the Fab Four in a butcher shop with bloody baby dolls was immediately pronounced too jarring for mass distribution.)

Danny assured us that he knew of a process by which steam could be used to salvage the New Yorker cover if, in fact, it arrived with an alternate illustration pasted over the original.

By Wednesday, HCD Research had published results of its nationwide poll showing that 54 percent of Republicans believed the cover was not offensive, whereas only 31 percent of Democrats believed the cover was not offensive. (No data were available regarding how many voters believed it was offensive to be polled about the political impact of a magazine cover.)

An investigation by Richard Prince, who writes about journalism for the Maynard Institute, produced this remarkable detail: "New Yorker spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos told (me) she did not know whether any people of color were involved in the cover's vetting process." (He doesn't mention whether the New Yorker consulted any actual Muslims about the style of Obama's turban.)

The Los Angeles Times responded to the New Yorker story by running a list of "10 Magazine Covers that Shook the World" - ranging from Time's "Is God Dead?" cover to Vanity Fair's covershot of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore. (Although the Times didn't mention it, it is likely that all 10 magazines set sales records at the newsstands.)

Blogger Jeff Chang, one of thousands to flood the Net with quick New Yorker blog-back, turned an interesting phrase: "New Yorker Goes Imus on Obamas."

Editor & Publisher, bible of the print news trade, reported: "Cartoonists Not Fond of Obama Art on 'New Yorker' Cover." The story included some particularly sour grapes from the new head of the cartoonists society, Ted Rall, who remarked, "If the New Yorker wants to get into the political cartoon business, it ought to hire some political cartoonists." Failing that, he added, the magazine should stick to "gag panels about Upper East Siders at cocktail parties."

The New York Times dispatched columnist Timothy Egan to Montana, yielding an op-ed from Missoula about the New Yorker cover headlined, "They Get It." Egan's report ended with, "…for every nut (in Montana), there's a New Yorker reader - and then some."

The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, was asked on CNN if he had it to do over again would he still run the cover? Never mind his answer. The more pertinent question would have been, "If you had it to do over again, would you print more copies?"

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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