Lesson in laughter

New Yorker cover of 20080721.

Controversy this week over the current New Yorker cover, showing Barack and Michelle Obama in all the worst ways the paranoid right could imagine, proves two basic lessons from the history of journalism.

The first is that a medium that is in the process of being overrun by emerging new media had better understand what that involves. In this case of The New Yorker, a whole new audience encounters something aimed at the magazine’s narrow, sophisticated readership. The broader audience includes clueless kids and Limbaugh dittoheads. Not to mention, of course, those who already believed to be true that which the magazine cover depicts as satirical fiction.

The second lesson is that political satire, and even gentle humor, often goes down wrong. Many people — maybe a majority, who knows? — have little sense of humor. Ask anyone who has written political commentary. I would happily be Exhibit A. They will tell you that it really does take a Mark Russell or a Capitol Steps to make it work, and lesser mortals will take their lumps. Politics, in the eyes of most, is serious business.

New Yorker readers — there are more than a million — might gasp, chuckle, or grimace at the image, as they have over the years at the magazine’s brilliant covers. But open the flood gates of the Internet and reaction will range from the horrified politically correct to the smarmy smiles of the politically incorrect.

Lost in the shuffle, of course, will be the magazine’s excellent coverage of the campaign, and politics in general, including an article in this issue about Obama’s Chicago connections. Oh, well!

Here is, in any event, another case of the clash of old and new media. The content of old media becomes currency for new media and arouses passion from all sides that might in earlier days have been confined to a few harrumphs and an articulate letter to the editor.

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