07/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The New Yorker 's Willie Horton Incident

In the Fall of 1988's presidential election the GOP's attack machine, led by Karl Rove's dirty-politics mentor Lee Atwater, ran ads against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for allowing convicted murderer Willie Horton to be freed on weekend furlough during which time he committed rape and robbery. George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee, publicly stated that Dukakis had allowed Horton to "terrorize innocent people." The campaign was designed to tap voters' worst racial stereotypes and fears. And it worked.

Cut to 2008. In its July 21 issue, in an unconscionable display of poor taste, racial insensitivity, fear-mongering and bad timing, the venerable highbrow literary journal New Yorker put a cartoon on its cover depicting Democratic presumptive nominee Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as fist-pounding, machine-gun-toting, flag-burning Muslim terrorists. What on Earth were they thinking? Just some 'good-natured satire' designed to mock America's racist dumbasses, right? But the humor has fallen way short of what was intended. Quite frankly, the cover is incredibly offensive and highly irresponsible.

The campaigns of both Obama and GOP presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain reacted harshly:

"The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

McCain's spokesman Tucker Bounds said, "we completely agree with the Obama campaign, it's tasteless and offensive."

But editor-in-chief, David Remnick, defended his magazine's decision to run the controversial cartoon:

The intent of the cover is to satirize the vicious and racist attacks and rumors and misconceptions about the Obamas that have been floating around in the blogosphere and are reflected in public opinion polls. What we set out to do was to throw all these images together, which are all over the top and to shine a kind of harsh light on them, to satirize them. That's part of what we do.

But rather than succeed in satirizing these vicious and racist attacks, rumors and misconceptions, the New Yorker's cover cartoon feeds into them. First of all, not every reader is a Manhattan 'limousine liberal' who'll "get" the satirical intent. To be sure, there are plenty of so-called Democrats and liberals who, despite their public political personas, are closeted conservatives who marinate in the same racist witches brew of attacks, rumors and misconceptions. Deep down, they want to see a black family occupy the White House about as much as their bigoted brethren on the right. But these people would likely feel this way regardless. Where the magazine's cover is most damaging is with those on the fence. People who happen to pass a newsstand and quickly glance at the cover thinking "Yup, that Obama couple must be really bad if this is on the New Yorker cover.". What about young people who see it? Will all of these folks "get" the satire, especially if only in a quick passing glance?

The New Yorker gambled big with this cover. If it's intention was to be controversial and dominate the news, it succeeded. But if it's goal was to present a compelling message with redeeming value, it failed miserably. It's attempt at social commentary in the form of biting racial satire did nothing but pour gasoline on an already raging fire.