Monday, June 15, 2009

Daredevil Design

The 21st July 2008 edition of The New Yorker caused a splash with its controversial cover, "The Politics of Fear", which depicted Barack Obama (now the current and 44th President of The United States of America) and his wife, Michelle Obama, as grinning, fist bumping Islamic militants who celebrate as the American flag burns in the fireplace, over which hangs a portrait of Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

(Source: Google Images 2009)

The New Yorker calls it 'satire' (AFP 2008) - namely, a play upon and a ridiculing of the malicious rumours that circulated around the Muslim roots of Obama's family. While others attacked the editorial decision, calling the cover 'tasteless and offensive' (Lewis 2008).

The most important question is this: was this a case of unethical publishing, or merely satire blown out of proportion?

This issue is a grievous one in many ways - the first of which was that it was done during the peak of campaigning during the run up to the United States Presidential Elections in November 2008. Lewis (2008) questions whether the satirical attack at the rumours surrounding Obama would highlight the ridiculousness of the accusations, or reinforce lingering doubts surrounding him. As such, it was not ethical from a situational context (Schirato & Yell 1996) as it was done during a crucial time in the campaigning, and could have cast doubt on the Democratic candidate's character and background.

Besides that, it is highly inappropriate from a cultural context (Halliday & Hasan 1985). This is because there is a significant Muslim population in the United States of America, comprising at least 3.5% of the total population ( 2009). The cover would undoubtedly offend the Muslim population, as most have had to deal with the stigma associated with their religion after the September 11 incident in 2001. This cover may, despite its purely satirical intentions, provoke unfounded fears among the non Muslim population in America, leading to discrimination towards the Muslim population.

Publishing regulations in America are also quite lax, as they have a lot of leeway for satire, being firm believers in the absolute freedom of speech. Had a cover of this nature (bordering on defamatory, and rather inflammatory) been published in Malaysia, a whole clampdown of laws from the Internal Security Act to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (Haji et al. 2003) would have been enforced upon the publication. As such, it can be concluded that this is regarded as satire in an American context, but probably unethical publishing everywhere else.

Therefore, publications should be mindful of how they convey their message, taking into account the situational and cultural contexts of their audience.


Factbook 2009, An analysis of the world Muslim population by country/region, viewed 15 June 2009, <>

Haji, NMJ, Redzuan, M, Abu, AS, Haji, IMR 2003, Malaysian studies: nationhood and citizenship, trans. Wong FK, Prentice Hall, Malaysia.

Halliday, MAK & Hasan, R 1985, Language, context and text: aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective, Deakin University Press, Waurn Ponds, Victoria.

Lewis, P 2008, 'New Yorker's 'terrorist' Obama cover under fire', viewed 15 June 2009, <>

'Obama Campaign Outrage by New Yorker Cover', July 2008, AFP, New York, viewed at 12th June 2009, <>

Schirato, T & Yell, S 1996, Communication and cultural literacy: an introduction, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards.

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