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Defining Satire in the Media

July 17th, 2008

As you know, the big political debate this past week has been swirling around The New Yorker Obama cover. The battle lines are drawn between those who defend it as satirical and those who label it as “tasteless and offensive.”


For me, this issue extends beyond presidential politics and raises new questions about how to define satire and its intended role in news reporting. More specifically, I ask: is it still satire if the person viewing or reading it doesn’t know it? Does satire require that it be labeled as such?

In one interpretation, Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar writes, “Anyone who’s tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who’s tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism— well, here’s your image.” Now, The New Yorker may have intended “to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd,” but what about those who hold firm beliefs about Obama – validated by the cover of that magazine – that they consider to be neither prejudiced, hateful, or absurd?

LA Times politics blogger Andrew Malcolm writes, “A problem is there’s no caption on the cover to ensure that everyone gets the ha-ha-we’ve-collected-almost-every-cliched-rumor-about-Obama-in-one-place-in-order-to–make-fun-of-them punchline.” Most of us don’t need this set-up or broader context, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that some of us do. Consider, for example, the residents featured in the Washington Post’s “Flag City USA” article. It’s fairly safe to say the satire will be lost on the residents of Findlay, Ohion. (Keep in mind, too, that the Post story was published before The New Yorker cover came out).

There may not be a clear winner in this debate, but I would hope that at the very least The New Yorker cover will spark a prolonged, earnest conversation about the intended role of satire in the media.

Posted Under: Media & Journalism
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