The Bad Frame: An Unfortunate Caricature of the Obamas

By Dan Hazen · 22 Jul 2008

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Picture: CBS News
Picture: CBS News

New Yorker magazine hit the newsstands with a shocking cover -- a caricature of Barack and Michelle Obama depicting the presidential candidate in a turban, fist-bumping his wife who has a machine gun slung over her shoulder, while the American flag burns in the fireplace. The cover is shocking in that it depicts the Obamas in bizarre, caricatured images and associations that reflect the very stereotypes with which the conservatives, particularly Fox News, have been trying to frame both the Obamas. Thus, instead of satire, the cover becomes a political poster for conservatives to reinforce their messages. Sen. Obama was shown the cover image by a reporter covering the campaign on Sunday, and while seemingly taken aback, he declined to comment.

But the Obama campaign quickly put out a release condemning the magazine cover. Bill Burton, a spokesman for Obama, said in a statement: "The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

Unfortunately the impact of this image will extend far beyond the reading audience of the New Yorker; cable news and the right-wing media noise machine will amplify the derogatory image to millions more. And the New Yorker of course will reap enormous publicity, clearly translating to increased sales and notoriety for the brand, and for corporate owner Conde Nast -- one of the largest and most powerful media companies in America.

But the publicity could very well backfire. Editor David Remnick and artist Barry Blitt's attempt at satire seems so arrogant and indulgent in its insensitivity, and so out of touch with political and media dynamics of tabloid TV and blogs, that it just might make a lot of people angry, including some subscribers. The cover turns the magazine into a potential Molotov cocktail, to be gleefully tossed by Fox News and the conservative blogs, into the already combustible tinderbox of race and Muslim stereotypes just below the surface of America's public discourse. (Remnick has since done an interview about his decision to run the cover.)

John Aravosis at America Blog writes:

A liberal publication like the New Yorker thinks it's funny to make Mrs. Obama some radical black panther, and Barack Obama basically a terrorist (you'll note that he looks just like Osama bin Laden on the wall). ... And this is funny? Is the New Yorker so out of touch that they don't realize that much of America, or at least too much of America, harbors these very concerns about Obama and his wife?

I'm sure the New Yorker thinks they're actually poking holes in the myth by making light of the stereotypes. Yeah, and tell us how this pokes fun at the stereotype? It reinforces it. And yet again, you'd never see them try anything like this with John McCain. God forbid you even ask a question about John McCain's experience, the media will destroy you. But paint Obama and his wife as America-hating flag-burning violent terrorists, and it's funny.

Jake Tapper of ABC News adds:

"Intent factors into these matters, of course, but no Upper East Side liberal -- no matter how superior they feel their intellect is -- should assume that just because they're mocking such ridiculousness, the illustration won't feed into the same beast in emails and other media. It's a recruitment poster for the right-wing.

"This is as offensive a caricature as any magazine could publish," says a high-profile Obama supporter, "and I suspect that other Obama supporters like me are also thinking about not subscribing to or buying a magazine that trafficks in such trash."

Lindsay Beyerstein, who blogs at Majikthise, makes an important point in emphasizing that:

"Our national discourse is impoverished when it comes to racially loaded images like the New Yorker cover. When I saw the cover, it was clear to me that the cartoonist was trying to covey a true and important point: All the Obama myths, like his Muslim father, fit together into a coherent and poisonously racist wingnut caricature. These aren't just random rumors. The anti-Obama mythos is a continuation of the ugly narratives that conservatives have been spinning since the civil-rights movement and before. That said, if you put those images on the cover of a national magazine, you're helping Fox spread those sick memes -- whether you intend to or not. It's easy to say "my work means what I mean it to mean, and if you don't get it, that's your problem" -- but it's never that simple. If you're approaching an assignment from a position of incredible privilege, say as a cover cartoonist for the New Yorker, you can't just write off the unintended consequences of your expression. If you insist on doing so, maybe that is racist."

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post added on Sunday on his CNN media show Reliable Sources that the cover is arguably "incendiary." In the end, it is shocking how the experienced editors of the New Yorker don't have the remotest idea of how framing the Obamas in this way completely reinforces the negative and harbored feelings that they are absurdly trying to satirize. This is satire run amuck, and it is a perfect example of how antiquated notions of journalism can play a role in provoking the worst of stereotypes and off-the-wall fantasies.

Remembering What Happened to Gore and Kerry

Back in the 2000 presidential campaign, conservative operatives successfully framed the idea that Al Gore was a fabricator (no need to mention the myths because they were untrue and don't warrant repeating). But the stories wouldn't have stuck without corporate media aggressively running with the disinformation about the tall tales, repeating them so often that most people eventually just assumed they were true.

In 2004, it was John Kerry's turn. He was pegged for a flip-flopper early on -- as if no politician ever changed their mind about complex issues -- and again, with the media endlessly repeating the charge, it stuck. And to help seal Kerry's fate, he got "swift-boated" with never-proven allegations about his war hero status, and the success of that story planted seeds of doubt in some voters.

Fast-forward to the present. So far neither the conservatives nor the McCain campaign have been able to negatively frame Obama in a way that has stuck. Hillary Clinton and partner Bill were not ultimately successful either. But that hasn't been for a lack of trying. Charges suggesting Obama is weak on defense, untried under pressure, inexperienced, and even a male chauvinist a la Geraldine Ferraro, haven't succeeded. It may be that Obama is a far more nimble politician than his predecessors, that Gore and Kerry's painful lessons have been well learned by the Obama team, or that the media for whatever reason haven't yet ganged up on Obama as they did in the past. Or probably some combination of all three.

Thus far the attempt to raise questions about Obama's religion represents the most persistent attempt to create a false narrative about him. So it was pretty shocking recently when I saw "Barack Obama is a Muslim and other stories" as the headline of the lead article on Salon. Maybe Salon is still sweet on Hillary. But one wonders why this headline and message? It does heavy lifting in support of the frames that Obama is a closet Muslim -- not a Christian -- with a secret agenda. It's the same message that Fox News, right-wing talk radio and conservative pundits have been pushing for months. Questions about Obama are consistently linked to Fox's repetition compulsion connecting Obama with the word "madrassa" -- which happens to mean school -- and are now planted firmly in the media's psychology as school "for terrorists in the making."

Meanwhile, the image below accompanied the headline. 

Apparently, Salon was making it easy for you, the reader -- just like when you were a kid -- to take a cut-out of a stereotypical Muslim and paste it right onto Obama. Even Fox News hasn't been that clever in terms of their efforts to stain Obama with associations to his father and to his name.

The White House and conservatives have dominated the media and public discourse over the past eight years, achieving remarkable success in winning much of their agenda, despite significant majorities opposing their ideas, as measured in opinion polls.

Conservatives have accomplished their hegemony, in part by effectively using and repeating simple, powerful language, and having it persistently echoed in the corporate media -- and even in progressive and independent media. No doubt, their biggest success has been creating the dominating frame, the "war on terror." They've successfully transformed the criminal acts of a small group of freakishly successful hijackers into a perpetual war which has become the fundamental message of Bushism, since 9/11. The "war on terror" provided the context for the hugely unpopular occupation of Iraq, the diminishing of civil liberties, and the establishment of a vast new domestic security apparatus. The media repeated the frame of the "war on terror" as though it were an inevitable response, a factual truth, and not a political frame that ideologues constantly pushed to justify an enormous shifting of priorities in the United States and around the globe.

Conservatives understand the power of a "frame," which linguistically is a conceptual structure used in thinking -- and in reality is how we come to think of images, ideas and viable narratives associated with words and phrases.

There are many dozens of conservative frames and phrases with which we are familiar. We often don't notice how they creep into our own consciousness and get repeated by us: Democrats want to "cut and run" in Iraq; "partial birth abortion" in reproductive rights; gay marriage will "destroy the family"; "the death tax," etc.

None of these frames would be successful without the generous and repeated help of the corporate media, which have perpetuated the myth of John McCain as a "maverick," with his "straight talk express," despite the fact except for a few exceptions, his record is very conservative, and he has changed his position incessantly, as this video from Brave New films and the recent article by Steve Benen, "John McCain -- 61 Flip-Flops and Counting," clearly document.

This framing-language success by the conservatives is pretty well known. But even that awareness doesn't stop us from often integrating conservative talking points into our own language, becoming language carriers ourselves. Now of course, the New Yorkermight say about its cover or Salon might say about its headline, "Oh, our readers are too smart," or "We were being ironic," or "provocative to prove a point." But the fact of the matter is that many more people will see that headline and register it in their brains than will read the story alone.

Elements of a Frame

There are some basic rules about frames that editors and writers might want to think about, if they are interested in avoiding persistently reinforcing conservative language and ideas. The fundamentals include: every word is a frame; evoking a frame reinforces and strengthens that frame; negating a frame, i.e. attacking it, reinforces that frame; and finally, words defined within a frame evoke the frame.

OK, maybe that sounds a little like gobbledygook -- what does this all mean? In his New York Times best-seller Don't Think of an Elephant(disclosure: I wrote the introduction to the book and was a strong advocate for the title), George Lakoff basically boils it down to, "When I tell you, 'Don't think of an elephant,' you can't help think of it." (The most famous version of this concept is Richard Nixon insisting, "I am not a crook.") So the word elephant is a frame -- i.e. it conjures up an image of an animal with a trunk. If you repeat the word -- "I love elephants," or want to dismiss it: "I never want to think of an elephant again," you strengthen the elephant frame. And when you say for example, "Sam picked up the peanut with his trunk," you immediately know that Sam is an elephant: words defined in a frame, invoke the frame.

So yes, I learned these basic concepts from Lakoff, who had a period prior to the last presidential election when he was very influential among Democrats. He spoke to senators when they went on retreat, and he was championed by heavy hitters like George Soros. But like many "flavors of the month," he lost some of his cache. He was replaced in 2006 by Drew Westen, a psychologist whose focus on the role of emotion in "determining the political life of the nation" is the new hot thinking that Democrats and liberals have more recently embraced.

Lakoff and Westen both have their critics, as does any newish thinking that goes against conventional wisdom and many decades of habits. And some suggest they may take some leaps from the research to make their case, although they would vigorously debate that assertion. But the point is that Lakoff and Westen have important things to teach us that are fundamental to politics and communication, and their work is very compatible.

It is not necessary to agree with all of their research, assertions and speculation to appreciate the basic points of their thinking. But if one is interested in going deeper, Lakoff's new book is The Political Mind, not to be confused with the well-received book by Westen: 

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