Dull Art: The New Yorker Obama Cover

July 14, 2008 | 7 2 min read

The New Yorker opened the week in a lather of controversy surrounding the cover of its latest issue. The Barry Blitt illustration is a rather heavy-handed satire of the various smears that have circulated about Barack and Michelle Obama. Essentially, that he is a closet Muslim extremist and she a closet militant. Blitt’s unsubtle drawing portrays them in the garb of these personas.

Speaking as a New Yorker fan, I can’t stand these political satire covers. Aside from them not being very funny or interesting to look at, they lower the New Yorker to the level of the fray. The key to the New Yorker’s success, however, has been its ability to place itself above all that.

Yes, the New Yorker is quite obviously a left leaning publication, but its journalism strives for even-handedness and the entire enterprise is built on a reverence for the facts, as its legendary fact-checking operation attests. By “the fray” I do not just mean politics, I also mean the “here today, gone tomorrow” jokes and the offhanded irony that seem to permeate most of our culture. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has always been so (justifiably) secure in its status, that neither its contents nor even its ideological leanings require an advertisement on the cover, which historically has been given over instead to a piece of art that exists simply for its own sake.

The political covers come across as jarring in this context. A couple of years ago another political cover caused a bit of controversy. The Bush/Cheney cover was a tired Brokeback Mountain rehash that got people riled up, and, as it turned out, it bumped a cover that was more topical and far more meaningful and in the spirit of the magazine.

Apparently, I may have been in the minority in this view, as the Mark Ulriksen Brokeback cover, along with a political Blitt cover, won awards.

It’s not even the political content of these covers that bugs me – there have occasionally been some good political covers – it’s their heavy-handed unfunniness that paints the magazine’s readers with a very broad brush. I don’t find the Obama cover to be offensive in the least, just easy and dumb.

If you feel the same way I do (or even if you think I’ve lost it), dig into the archives and enjoy the hundreds of sublime and clever covers that have graced the New Yorker over the years.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I agree with you 100%. It's not about whether Americans can understand satire nor is this a matter of free speech, as many blogs have argued–the cover is simply easy and dumb. I expect more from the New Yorker.

  2. I couldn't agree more. The New Yorker's defense of this cover as satire is an insult to satire. It doesn't say anything to anyone that will change minds or even make a clear attack on the false statements made about the Obamas. This is on the same level as a second-grader's picture depicting their teacher as a "poopie-pants."

  3. I can't believe I haven't heard crass commercialism mentioned (and I love the magazine too)!

  4. The reaction to the New Yorker cover has been absurd.

    If there is still someone out there who a) has never heard the rumor that the Obamas are America-hating Black separatist Muslim terrorists, but b) would believe as much if he heard it–is it really very likely that the cover of The New Yorker will provide his first exposure to those ideas?

    The idea that it is racist is nonsense: the Afro and fist-bump are not generalized racial caricatures, but rather direct allusions to specific accusations leveled at the Obamas. The right's coöption of each concept is fair game for satire, and it's not clear how artist Barry Blitt could have depicted them in a non-racially specific way.

    I have much more to say on these subjects here.

  5. The truth is if McCain was satirized on the cover, New Yorker libs would laugh their butts off.

  6. By way of rebuttal, Anonymous: I'm a "New Yorker lib," and while I won't speak for Max as to his political leanings, I agree with his statement, in the post above, that the Cheney Brokeback Mountain cover was beneath the New Yorker as well – ephemeral, easy, and unfunny. I might have written a post on it, had I not made a resolution to try not to post on ephemera. It seems, alas, that the partisan New Yorker cover (as opposed to the politically engaged New Yorker cover) is becoming less of an epiphenomenon and more of a frequent occurrence…and thus is worthy of a post.

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