When Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925, he told potential investors that it was not edited for "the little old lady from Dubuque."
This is still true, as the flap over the latest cover suggests. Publishing an illustration of Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim fist-bumping his wife Michelle (with a semi-automatic over her shoulder) may have been meant as a parody of the dopey Internet rumor-mongering that has dogged the campaign for close to two years.
But it is indisputably harmful to the Obama campaign, which is why, though Obama himself wouldn't comment, his spokesman called the cartoon "tasteless and offensive."
To explain why it is harmful, consider Lesley Stahl and my cousin Paul.
Lesley Stahl covered the Reagan White House for CBS News. One day in 1984 she broadcast a five-minute (extremely long for TV news) blistering report on how President Reagan was cutting funding for public health and for children with disabilities. After it aired, the late Richard Darman, a top Reagan aide, called and said, "Congratulations! We loved it!"
Stahl was dumbfounded. The piece had been a hatchet job.
"Nobody heard what you said," Darman told her. The pictures Stahl had used to "cover" her story were of Reagan cutting ribbons at hospitals and speaking at the Special Olympics. The White House knew that these warm images spoke a lot louder than anything Stahl was reporting.
In the same way, the New Yorker cover, now being displayed endlessly on cable TV, speaks louder than any efforts by Obama supporters to stop the smears (though it doesn't help that barackobama.com makes it hard to navigate to the truth-squading). As the author Drew Westen has shown, negative images burn their way into the consciousness of voters in ways that cannot be erased by facts. With one visual move, the magazine undid months of pro-Obama coverage in its pages.
Apparently, the New Yorker is losing some subscriptions over this flap. That's silly. It's hardly a crime to let a clever idea for a magazine cover (rare) trump political sensitivities (common). Getting too huffy about cartoons is something we should leave to extremists. But let's not pretend the cover doesn't play into a lot of garbage that otherwise smart and reasonable people actually believe, and in places far beyond Dubuque.
For a while, I thought only rightwingers and other Obama haters bought into the lies being spread about him. Then I got a call from Ross Perot, who was trying to plant some dirt about John McCain leaving live POWs behind in Vietnam (untrue, by the way). In the course of the conversation, it became clear that Perot thought Obama was a Muslim. When I informed him that Obama was actually a Christian, Perot was relieved. He didn't hate Obama; he just had an instinct to believe whatever he happened to see online over what he read in reputable newspapers.
In this, alas, Ross Perot has plenty of company, and among people with a much less conspiratorial bent. Americans have become so distrustful of the mainstream media (MSM) that they instinctively disbelieve much of what they read and hear from us. But if misinformation arrives online from someone they've never heard of, they figure it must be true. It's our newest form of cognitive dissonance.
To give you an idea of how far these distortions about Obama have spread, I offer the case of my cousin Paul, a smart and successful Californian now in his 80s. He doesn't read the New Yorker, but does include Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times and such rarefied publications as the American Scholar in his media diet.
Paul, a lifelong Democrat, is truly undecided about whom to vote for, and it's not hard to see why. To get a fix on the truth about Obama, he recently sent me a letter with a series of things he'd heard about the man. He asked me to answer "true" or "false" to each. Sorry to walk you through this, but this is the sort of thing the press needs to do more often. So here are a few of Paul's Internet rumors, with my answers:
His stepfather sent him to a Muslim school.
False. When Obama lived in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, his mother and stepfather sent him for a time to a Catholic school, and for a time to an Indonesian public elementary school, where he had a class in Islamic studies (as required by the state). When CNN and other news organizations investigated whether this was a "madrassa" (religious school), the answer was a clear "no." Girls did not have to cover their heads, prayers were not required, students came from many different religious backgrounds and the school was recognizably "public."
His father gave him the Muslim name Barack Hussein Obama.
True, but meaningless. Obama's father, whose name was also Barack Hussein Obama, was born to a Muslim family in Kenya but become an atheist long before he came to Hawaii in 1959, where he met Obama's mother.
He changed his first name to Barry, and when he got into politics, he changed it back to Barack Hussein Obama.
False. "Barry" was Obama's nickname growing up, and he asked his friends to call him "Barack" when he went to college, which was 15 years before he entered politics.
Barack's step-brother stated, "Barack is a Muslim."
Possible, but irrelevant. Obama has two half-sisters, Maya (on his mother's side) and Auma (on his father's), to whom he is close. He also has several African step-brothers (his father married several times), but he has met them only once or twice in his life.
And that's just Paul's questions on the Muslim stuff. He has a bunch of others, picked up from somewhere online, full of misinformation about Obama's relationship with Chicago lowlife Tony Rezko (which Obama admitted was "bone-headed"), his supposedly close relationship to the Daley organization (not close), his wife's comments (taken out of context) and so forth.
I'm under no illusions that the campaign, the press or anyone else can set these rumors to rest. Some have just enough truth in them to keep the stories circulating until the election and beyond. And even the completely bogus ones will always be with us.
Just ask Lesley Stahl and my cousin Paul.