07/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Joke Is 'On' Not 'In' The New Yorker

If you've ever watched tabloid daytime TV you're probably familiar with the following set-up. On the way out to a commercial break, the producer teases the next segment with b-roll footage of a precocious and scantily-clad teenage girl. Then the show's host does a voice-over like this: "When we come back we'll meet Lolita, a teenage girl. She tells her mom: 'You can't stop me from having sex!'"

The talk-shows pretend they're in the business of helping the girls. But it's pretty obvious that 'helping' is not part of the mission. The only thing that matters to the shows is the ratings and the corresponding ad revenue. Which is exactly why these shows are willing to exploit the low-self esteem of an immature girl.

What makes the producers of such talk shows worse than the criminals and victims they report on is the cynically calculated, coldly deliberate and methodical way these producers approach these topics.

I'm reminded of this kind of tabloid talk-show cynicism by this week's cover illustration for the New Yorker magazine with its despicable depiction of Barack and Michelle Obama. It is fairly clear by now that despite their protestations otherwise, the New Yorker designed this cover to be inflammatory and to provide grist for cable news networks so they could sell more magazines and, perhaps, attract new subscribers.

To me the only thing entirely more tasteless and offensive than the actual cover is the dismissive and patronizing demeanor taken by its defenders in response. Editor in Chief David Remnick told the Huffington Post that the New Yorker didn't run the cover "just to get attention."

That assertion made me wonder if gaining attention wasn't the raison d'etre for publishing pretty much everything. The New Yorker certainly didn't publish this cover so it would pass inconspicuously or fall into obscurity. It was obviously a choice made to stand out and make the statement, "Buy this magazine!"

Like the exploitative TV producers who have figured out that half-naked teen girls can attract an audience, the New Yorker is claiming to perform a service to the Obamas by holding the many false allegations and malicious rumors about them up to a mirror. But that is analogous to the TV producer making the self-serving claim that the goal is to provide a platform so the 14 year old girl gets feedback about her risky behavior.

If the New Yorker was serious about such a service there are many other stereotypes available for satirizing as well. A survey of white supremacist websites reveals caricatures of Barack Obama as a monkey (especially Curious George); Rush Limbaugh has called Barack Obama an affirmative action candidate; and recently TV host John McLaughlin referred to Obama as an "oreo." We should call on the New Yorker to bring on the satire for all these as well and while they're at it they can lampoon the racist typecasting of Jewish or Asian features with similar exaggerated caricatures of swarthy noses or giant teeth.

Ultimately the reason this cover of the New Yorker fails to convey its attempt at satire is the same reason we are unlikely to see clearly stereotypical images of black, Jewish, or Asian features; and we are unlikelier to see a caricature of a President Obama eating fried chicken and watermelon in the Oval Office. Such imagery would be simply offensive, as was this so-called caricature, because they're more likely to be enlarged and hung on the wall at an Aryan Nation meeting than they are likely to be understood as satire.

Responding to the controversy, Remnick goes on to say that all satire risks being taken out of context. However, the problem is that the caricature on the cover of the New Yorker was devoid of 'context' to begin with. Rather than apologize for exploiting the nastiest of Obama-bashing for profit, the New Yorker has chosen to lecture us.

Award-winning illustrator Art Spiegelman, who has drawn for the New Yorker, quite tellingly intones to the San Francisco Chronicle that Obama supporters who take issue with the cover are "elitist." One wonders how many Republican talking points the New Yorker can channel at once. Maybe that was Spiegelman's attempt at satire and we just didn't get it either.