August 5, 2008

ObamaPhobia: BagNewsNotes Netroots Nation Presentation ’08


This presentation was delivered July 19th, 2008 at the NetrootsNation conference in Austin.

ObamaPhobia” was part of the “Don’t Think Of Violence: Framing, Media And Policy” panel moderated by cultural anthropologist and political communications expert Jeffrey Feldman, author of “Framing the Debate” and “Outright Barbarous,” also featuring David Neiwert, Firedoglake managing editor and author/editor of the blog Orcinus, and Andrea Batista Schlesinger of the Drum Major Institute.

The presentation  outlines the racial and religious stereotypes in the media’s visual coverage of the Obama campaign. Please excuse the spacing and lack of links. This was produced and posted as an audio slideshow but the original was lost when the outfit hosting it went out of business. The version below was reconstructed from the original slides and speaker notes.



Looking at the campaign so far, it’s clear to me that the Obama candidacy has been a powerful force in challenging racial, cultural and social stereotypes … and that, simultaneously, the candidacy has represented a visual field day for coded fear-mongering and racial stereotyping – and I say this with my primary emphasis on the traditional media.

In looking at the fearful or polarized treatment of Obama, it breaks down into three different categories:

>> Obama as “Other.”

>> Obama as racial stereotype

>>And third, in descending order: Obama as shadow figure; Obama as a man with a covert, anti-American agenda; Obama as Machiavellian mastermind; and Obama as closet Muslim and even Islamic Manchurian candidate.

Because my blogospheric mission deals with visual rhethoric, I’m going to mostly let the pictures talk. To demonstrate the similarities between overt attacks on Obama and more veiled versions in the traditional media, however, I’m going to also be mixing in some frames from a milder viral anti-Obama video called Unelectable (the lyrics adapted from the song: Unforgettable).


According to Wikipedia, the term “Other” is used in social science to understand how groups of people subordinate those who do not fit into their society (such as people of color; or Americans of mixed race”; or “post-racial, African American, academic/intellectual, former Union organizing, arugula-eating, Chicago South Side Presidential aspirants” … who happen to be “elite” – but in a good way.


The ambiguity is inherent in these two May Newsweek cover mock-ups for an issue about race, the former killed by a nervous management at the last minute and replaced by the latter.


In what we might call the “Rust Belt” and “Appalachian” stage of the campaign, the racial, class and cultural tension is palpable in this May (6, 08) NYT image described by a reader of mine as “white vs. black, blue collars vs. white collars, jeans vs. slacks, work boots vs. Oxfords, GEDs vs. degrees, and labor vs. management.”


Coming back to Newsweek, this April 27 feature minced no words, the title window on its website literally branding Obama with the term.


The image has racial and class implications framing the well-dressed black man as being “from the other side of the tracks” …or “the far side of town…” as someone set apart from society, from small town America, and from people like “you and me.”


Racial stereotypes can be broken down into two categories, one involving social roles, the other involving personality characteristics.

Social stereotypes tend to pigeonhole African-Americans as athletes, entertainers or outlaws, while personality stereotypes tend to focus on: lust (esp. toward white women), anger, laziness and, arrogance, especially concerning educated/successful blacks. (The pejorative term, I believe, is “uppity.”)



While these frames come courtesy of “Unelectable” ….


Here, ABC News uses the same juxtaposition technique, not just creating linkage but literally parking Tony at Obama’s front door.


The Chicago Sun Times plays the race card by linking a conspiratorial-looking Obama to what it labels: “a lord of the slums.”


And you’ve got to love the title of this Syrian family portrait from the Chicago Tribune’s aptly named “Swamp” blog:

Back in March, by the way, Glen Greenwald said this shallow media drama was distinctive if only because: “Rezko himself has a sinister-sounding, villain-like last name and is of Syrian origin.”

As I mentioned, African-Americans are typically stereotyped as entertainers and athletes.


As I mentioned, African-Americans are typically stereotyped as entertainers and athletes.

Repeated throughout the Unelectable video is a scene – I believe, from The Ellen Show — of Obama dancing…


You can compare that to this photoshop job of Obama as Sammy Davis Jr. — courtesy of Mark Halperin at TIME’s The Page. (The treatment has a number of layers to it, also framing Obama as a “rat” for being part of the Rat Pack, AND as a Machaivellian mastermind, equal in company to the likes of such famous rats as Atwater, Carville and Rove.)


Regarding the stereotype of African-Americans as aggressive and angry, Unelectable uses a video sequence of Obama lining up, then slamming a punching bag…

Because Obama is extraordinarily even keel, however, and the anger stereotype tends to favor African-American women, the media has focused its “anger framing”…


on Michelle Obama … echoed more than once by Michael Powell in the NYT, who describes Michelle as: a “less mutable” black woman who “burns hot.”


You might also remember this comparison after the frame on the left appeared in the Clinton “Red Phone/3am” ad. On the right is the original source, from the Obama –Clinton debate in Ohio.

Besides giving Obama the OJ treatment, notice the text … playing on the stereotype of the Black man as lazy.



You might also remember this comparison after the frame on the left appeared in the Clinton “Red Phone/3am” ad. On the right is the original source, from the Obama –Clinton debate in Ohio.

Besides giving Obama the OJ treatment, notice the text … playing on the stereotype of the Black man as lazy.



…And then, there’s the characterization of the educated African-American as arrogant or uppity.


This arrogant quality, btw, has come to be broadly associated by the visual media with Obama’s tendency to either purse his lips and furrow his brow, or cock his head back, sometime closing his eyes –although photojournalists I know on the campaign trail says the gesture means different things in different contexts, from Obama’s remarkable capacity to stay relaxed; to a listening style; to a competitive response.

Of course, it’s easy to compare a widely run shot like the one you see now…

To these sequential frames from Unelectable,


the latter two, based on Michele Malkin’s reinterpretation of the popular Shepard Fairy Obama poster.


But realize, you still have to square it with a moment like this — the photo snapped by a friend of mine at the recent Wesleyan graduation.



And then, much of the sphere took notice on June 23rd when Karl Rove characterized Obama as the elitist “guy at the country club with the beautiful date.” Paraphrasing David Kurtz at TPM:

The key to the image is the “beautiful date.” Not Michelle Obama or, in the abstract, his wife, though.

And, is it any surprise that within days of Rove’s comments, we see the candidate, in the words of gawker, having to deny having had a “textual relationship” with that woman?   I pulled this fake mock-up from the NY Magazine’s website, but believe me, there was plenty to chose from.


Finally, we have Obama as shadow figure; America-hater, secret mastermind and even one man Islamic sleeper cell.

The shadow message is communicated either by the idea Obama is not just unknown, but unknowable – or, by the suggestion he is not who he says he is.


Last November, for example, in a guest appearance on its Halloween show, SNL disguised Obama in a mask … of himself.


Wrapping an air of suspicion around this photo of Obama with his white Grandparents, the NYT dedicated a whole story to why Obama spent so little time in his biography discussing his 2 years in New York while finishing college.


After primaries or caucuses in every state, over twenty debates, and sixteen months of intensive campaigning, the NYT ran a front page profile the morning after Obama nailed down the Democratic nomination with an accompanying slide show, titled: Who Is Barack Obama?

Their answer, in this shadowy first slide, was: an African-American “ protean figure” who “remains inscrutable to critics.”


The photo on the final slide displays Obama with arms crossed, and smiling at no one in particular as he stands behind a curtain. The caption starts off:

“ Mr. Obama studies his chosen world like a Talmudist, charting trends and noting which rivals are strong and which are weak…”

and finishes with:

“… Mr. Obama seems to have read his Niccolo Machiavelli.”


In the interest of time, I’ll leave most of the patriotism attack – involving Michelle Obama, Jeremiah Wright and the mindless saga of the flag pin — to another day…


except to say: that coat – courtesy of TIME — looks as pin-lessly empty and lonely as an unbranded coat could possibly be.


What cannot be overlooked, however, especially this week, is Obama as the Islamic Manchurian candidate.


Remember this from February? The photo shows Obama fitted as a Somali Elder during a trip to Kenya.

Because the context surrounding the photo was a political one — the picture reportedly passed from the Clinton campaign to Matt Drudge — it became fair game for wide, mainstream publication. Of course, its gone on to become a hit on the viral hate mail circuit.


One of the most troubling visual examples of the supposed Islamic tie was a background story last March in the LA Times printed on the front page near a story and photo of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. (I kid you not.)


Although Obama has made known he attended an Islamic school for 3rd and 4th grade, and the article acknowledges the quality and reputation of the school, the inference — especially given the symbolism in this image leading off the accompanying slide show — is that Obama somehow attended a madrassa.

The thing is, the mosque didn’t even exist at the time.

… And then, up until Monday, I was intending to leave you with a cute quip about …


…the terrorist fist bump.

However, that was before The New Yorker gifted us this ambiguous attempt at satire:


By failing to anchor the scene by connecting it in any way to either the media or the right wing, the illustration does something impressively terrifying — which is to fuse almost all the fears I’ve mentioned into a cumulative caricature.

As a result, we get the ultimate nightmare — a pair of conniving. flag-burning, hate lovers – one, an angry black militant and the other, the world’s most famous closet-jihadi – exchanging the dap of all time.

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Michael Shaw
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