This week's New Yorker set off a Web-and-cable frenzy Monday over cover art that shows Barack Obama as a Muslim, Michelle Obama as a militant and the American flag aflame under a portrait of Osama bin Laden — all in the Oval Office.
Reactions to the cartoon by artist Barry Blitt ranged from sadness to rage to scorn. The consensus from analysts was "what were they thinking?"
"It's the mass media at its worst. It perpetuates false information, and it's highly inflammatory," says Darrell West, an elections and public opinion expert at the Brookings Institution. "It gives credibility to what's been circulating for months, and that's what makes it dangerous."
In a statement Monday, New Yorker editor David Remnick called the cover a "fantastical" satire that shows "obvious distortions" about the Obamas. Some blacks don't see it that way.
"I wouldn't use the word satire. The word I would use is racist," said Sallie Elliot, 53, of Cincinnati, waiting in that city Monday to hear Obama at the NAACP convention. "It perpetuates narrow, stereotypical images, and it was insulting to me."
George Lockwood, who lectures on newspaper ethics and political caricature at Louisiana State University, said the magazine made "a damn-fool decision." In years overseeing comics at the old Milwaukee Journal, Lockwood says, he learned that "the one thing that most readers don't understand is satire. You do it at some risk."
The problem, says Elaine Miller, a former professor who gives talks on gender and race in political cartoons, is that "once you launch a work of art it belongs to the reader. The artist's intent is very interesting, but the reader owns the interpretation."
That was the fear on liberal blogs Monday, the second day the cartoon cover topped Memeorandum.com — a ranking of political hot topics on the Web. A recent Newsweek poll shows the potential for misinterpretation: 26% said Obama was raised a Muslim, 39% said he attended an Islamic school and 12% said he was sworn in to the Senate on a Quran. None of that is true.
Satire is supposed to exaggerate reality, not reflect it, author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at ta-nehisi.com. "Sadly, that picture exaggerates nothing — that's exactly what a slice of Americans believe about Barack Obama. Expect that image to be on T-shirts within two weeks," he wrote.
Christian conservative David Brody made a similar prediction at The Brody File: "Obama's critics on the right think the picture is spot on. I mean, this thing has 'copy and paste' written all over it. Expect to see this … picture popping up in conservative e-mails everywhere."
Obama's campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, criticized the cover as "tasteless and offensive." Obama's fall opponent, Republican John McCain, called it "totally inappropriate" Monday and added, "Frankly, I understand if Sen. Obama and his supporters would find it offensive."
Some conservatives said the cover annoyed them because they were its real targets.
"The cartoon is intended to make fun of conservatives as ignorant racists, and essentially marginalize any criticism of Obama as moronic," wrote Philip Klein at The American Spectator.
Other conservatives mocked Obama at the American Thinker website, under a headline about Obama's "incredibly thin skin."
Rick Moran posted a Der Spiegel cover of President Bush as Rambo, complete with muscle shirt and automatic weapon, and asked, "Isn't it time for Obama to man up?"
Contributing: Susan Page in Cincinnati