August 4, 2006

Sambo Joe And The Visual Blogosphere


If you missed the brouhaha, Jane Hamsher of firedoglake briefly became a subject of controversy in the Connecticut senatorial primary yesterday morning.  Having spent the last two weeks traveling with the Lamont campaign while blasting at Lieberman on her blog, Hamsher led off her most recent campaign update at HuffingtonPost with the image above.

What “inspired” the visual was the scramble for Connecticut’s black vote, and what Hamsher pointed to as Lieberman’s crass appeal for it.  (John Dickerson of Slate has a good summary of the whole affair, including Lieberman’s bloviating indignance, and Lamont’s amateurish reaction, distancing himself from both Hamsher, and the blogosphere.)

Obviously, this story is full of visual angles.  There is Hamsher’s role (and the “photo-editorial” responsibility of the blogger), there is the image itself (which, after posting, was quickly withdrawn), and there is the peculiar light this illustration cast on the newswire photos of Lamont’s campaign day.

What follows is a snippet of Hamsher’s apology (or, “non-apology,” according to Dickerson) for the photo-illustration (also featuring a link to a Connecticut site documenting a racial flier allegedly circulated by the Lieberman campaign).  What makes the response particularly BAG-worthy, however, is the question Hamsher poses about the relevance of her choice of images.  She writes:

For weeks, Senator Lieberman has attempted to woo African Americans by pretending to be someone he clearly is not.  Meanwhile, his campaign has liberally distributed race-baiting fliers that have the “paid for by” Joe’s campaign disclaimer at the bottom, lying to the press about their intended recipients.

But for some reason, more questions have been asked about me, a blogger.  With so much at stake this election, is the choice of images used by a mere supporter really newsworthy?

First off, Jane needs to step a little closer to the plate.  This “mere supporter” just happens to attract about 450,000 page views a week.  Also, excuse me for being technical, but the phrase “choice of image” is not that forthcoming, either.  As I understand it, Hamsher didn’t just choose this illustration — she conceived it.

More important, however, is the question of whether a blog image is newsworthy.  Interesting question coming from a site that leads nearly each post with an image, a great many of which constitute strong parody, or almost stand-alone op-ed.

Regarding the image itself, it doesn’t make much sense unless you’re following this contest as closely as Hamsher is.  Beyond that, you have to wonder how much the race question — in a contest between two well-off white guys in Connecticut — really involves platforms and qualifications, so much as it does a (Rovian-style) appeal to a strategic voting niche.

On the visual alone, the use of “black face” is so culturally loaded, it’s hard to believe Ms. Hamsher wouldn’t see this coming back at her.  But then, maybe she truly is missing the visual dynamics of the sphere.  (As a further reflection of the mindset, FDL — in spite of its prominence and heavy use of graphics — has yet to adopt photo or illustration credits as standard practice.)

Finally, doctoring Lieberman side-by-side with Bill Clinton only heightens the blasphemy.  But it’s based on the controversial campaign flier, you say?  Sure.  But, because Hamsher’s post made no mention of the flier, and had nothing to do with race, how were Huffington Post readers supposed to “appreciate” the context?  On the other hand, Clinton’s affinity for the black community and black churches is so widely known, it lends an even harsher edge to Sambo Joe. 

(Because the post did have to do with Wal-Mart, maybe a better choice might have been to make Lieberman’s head an oversized smiley face.)

Lamont-Sharpton  Lamont-Jesse

(click to expand)

Finally, I’m wondering how much Hamsher’s inside knowledge of Lamont’s schedule this week inspired this illustration.  Perhaps Jane’s (unconscious) motivation was to run interference while Lamont played his own race card.  Either way, as the visual fancy of “one blogger out there,” it sure doesn’t make these “other” images seem any more natural.

(image 1: Douglas Healey/AP.  Aug. 2, 2006.  Stamford, Conn.  Via YahooNews.  caption: Ned Lamont center, embraces Tommie Jackson, pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church at a breakfast with Rev. Al Sharpton.  image 2: Bob Child/AP.  Aug. 2, 2006.  New Haven, Conn.  Via YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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