Covering controversy

The New Yorker coverThe hottest media story in the past week has been the instantly infamous New Yorker cover portraying Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as terrorists. Though the Obama campaign has been measured in its response, media outlets – and particularly bloggers – have been vocal in their disapproval. Some have suggested that the cover crosses the line from satire into hate speech, while others accuse TheNew Yorker of giving ‘aid and comfort to the enemy' by visually depicting the smears and misconceptions that have been aimed at the candidate.

Because of the promotional value of a magazine's cover – despite being told otherwise, we often do judge (and buy) books and magazines by their covers – editors often intentionally court controversy when commissioning them. What makes a cover controversial? What process went into the creation of the Obama cover, and why has it provoked so much more outcry than other satirical magazine covers?

Deconstructing a controversial cover

When looking at covers that are intentionally controversial– as distinguished from those that become controversial for reasons not intended by the editors, like the infamous doctored O.J. Simpson cover in which the football player and accused murderer was presented with darkened skin – there are a number of things that turn up again and again, that are more or less guaranteed to create controversy.


Vanity Fair cover - Demi MooreAs the adage puts it, sex sells, and even such venerable institutions as Newsweek have used it in such covers as June 1989's “Hurrah for the Bra” (no picture, sorry). For editors, though, sex is a problematic way of creating controversy: too little and there's no story, too much and your cover won't be displayed. One solution has been to use images that are relatively tame in terms of exposure but controversial due to context. The classic example of this is Vanity Fair's August 1991 cover featuring Demi Moore naked and pregnant. Despite the relative tameness of the cover image – it is less revealing than the average Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover – it led to widespread debate and, in some cases, outrage; in many places the magazine was covered or even pulled from shelves. The issue was not that Moore was naked but that she was pregnant: a sexualized “glamour shot” of a mother-to-be proved to be too much for some readers to bear.

babytalk coverIf there's any doubt that sexualizing motherhood remains a taboo, the controversy over the August 2006 issue of babytalk should put it to rest. This cover led to nearly a thousand angry letters and e-mails from readers who called it “gross,” some saying they hid the magazine rather than let it be seen in their home. (Gayle Ash, who shredded her copy, explained that "I don't want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn't want to see.")


Time cover - Is God Dead?Most magazine editors tread warily when dealing with religion, an inherently controversial topic. For those courting controversy, though, it is invaluable. One of the most infamous Time covers is the one at left, both for the message and the format. In an unusual move for Time – which made its reputation presenting photojournalism – there is no image, only text. The text itself, red on a black background, is also unique. Most arresting, though, is the question it poses: Is God Dead? Writers like Richard Dawkins can still be provocative by raising similar questions today; in 1966 it was considered incendiary. Testament to the power of this cover is the fact that nobody remembers what the cover story was actually about: the Death of God movement, a loose group of theologians who were grappling in different ways with the apparent absence of God from the modern world. While the movement was quickly forgotten the cover was not, being widely referred to in such pop culture artefacts as the movie Rosemary's Baby.


Esquire cover - Muhammad AliIn the United States, of course, race is guaranteed to be the most controversial topic (as The New Yorker's editor has no doubt learned). Race alone, though (except racial caricature), isn't enough to cause a stir. But when it is combined with one of the other controversial issues, such as religion (as seen at left, in the April 1968 issue of Esquire titled “The Passion of Muhammad Ali,” where the boxer is portrayed as Saint Sebastian, riddled with arrows) or sex (as in the April 2008 cover of Vogue showing LeBron James clutching white model Gisele Bundchen in a King Kong-like pose,) race seems to act as an accelerant: what might be mildly controversial becomes very controversial.

Too controversial

The New Yorker cover - BushThis may be where The New Yorker went wrong: underestimating just how much the messages about race, religion, patriotism and terrorism would add up to. There was no question they knew the cover would be controversial – as editor David Remnick told the Huffington Post, “What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama's – both Obamas' – past, and their politics.” They likely did not guess just how controversial it would be, expecting it to draw the same amount of attention as some of Barry Blitt's earlier satirical covers (the magazine has put a gallery of covers on its Web page, which you can see here.) Unlike the other covers, though – such as the one above satirizing George W. Bush's relationship with Vice President Cheney – the cover combines controversial topics: besides the picture of Osama Bin Laden it brings religion into the picture by depicting Obama in a costume associated with the Taliban, and the issue of race is underscored by Michelle Obama's Black Panther costume and the fist-bump greeting the two share.

The New Yorker cover- Mahmoud AhmadinejadThat fist-bump points to the other reason why the cover's controversy may have exceeded expectations: it was based on a news hook that did not remain news for long enough. Unlike in the issue at left, where readers could be expected to remember both U.S. Senator Larry Craig's arrest for “foot touching” in a men's room and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York, the Obama cover was based on something that faded quickly: Fox News host E.D. Hill's referring to the fist-bump gesture – properly called, according to word maven William Saffire, a “dap” – as a “terrorist fist jab.” If that story had remained in the news it might have been clearer that it was Fox News, and other media outlets of a similar political bent, that were the targets of the cover's satire.

It remains to be seen whether this cover will be good or bad for The New Yorker's sales, though most analysts seem to feel the effect will be a negative one – that it is possible for a cover to be too controversial. Nevertheless, while editors will no doubt take a lesson and be careful in how they portray Obama (at least until after the election), there's no doubt that they will continue to court controversy – because selling the magazine is what the cover is all about.

Questions for classroom discussion

  • Do you think the New Yorker cover went too far in courting controversy? Why or why not?
  • Do you think most people who see the cover will recognize it as satire? Why or why not?
  • How do you think that this controversy will affect The New Yorker's sales? Why?
  • Compare the Obama cover to the two other New Yorker covers pictured above. Do you think Obama has been treated any differently from the subjects of the other covers? Why or why not?
  • How do you think this controversy will affect the Obama campaign? Why?
  • Why do you think covers involving pregnancy and motherhood are so much more controversial than those that simply involve sex?
  • There are few recent examples of magazine covers that use religion to cause controversy. Why do you think that is?
  • Why do you think race is the most controversial topic of the three? Do you think that would hold true for magazines published in Canada? Why or why not?

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