Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
August 3, 2008

How Schizo Is This, Putting Obama In Double-Bind?

Obama Black Hecklers

My question is, does the NYT put Obama in a classic double bind by selecting this image to run with Saturday’s front page article?

According to Wikipedia, a double bind is:

a dilemma in communication in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages and one message denies the other, a situation in which the person will be put in the wrong however they respond, and the person can’t comment on the conflict, or resolve it, or opt out of the situation.

(If you’re interested, this link describes anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s original intention of the term, conceived as a theory to understand how this communication style between parent and child might lead to the development of schizophrenia.)

Why do I raise the term in the first place?  Because the article by Michael Powell (With Genie Out of Bottle, Obama Is Careful on Race – link) describes how Obama is essentially handcuffed from fighting back if McCain attacks him on race.  As Powell writes:

For Mr. Obama, the risks of fighting back are that anything that calls attention to the racial dynamics of the contest would potentially polarize voters and stir unease about his candidacy, particularly among white voters in swing states. He is, after all, a candidate who has sought to transcend his own racial heritage in appealing to the broad electorate.

That being the case, the choice of photo is rather stunning.

If the article emphasizes the limitation on Obama from pushing back on McCain on the subject of race, the photo — depicting an incident on Friday in St. Petersburg in which “seven self-styled African revolutionaries began shouting and pointing at (Obama), accusing him of undermining revolutionary struggle” mirrors the equivalent dilemma from the opposite flank.  In other words, the photo emphasizes the constraint on Obama from answering the charges of these African-Americans that he isn’t confronting race nearly enough.

Given the double bind, I find the choice of the photo quite exploitive, the racially-balanced crowd injecting even more tension into the irreconcilable conflict.  And then, the theme of irreconcilability seems to also drag in the American flag and the Obama banner, especially as Obama appears to align with the flag in opposition to the protesters who seems to stand for his name.

Boxed in on both sides of the issue, the image frames Obama, with his back to us in a beseeching gesture, as particularly impotent.  And then, to add insult to injury, take a look at the image that appeared almost half-a-page tall on Saturday’s page A8.  It shows the race-baiting candidate, the microphone and the situation well in hand, calmly tackling a concern raised by a black audience member as McCain addresses the National Urban League.

(image: Jae C. Hong/AP.  August 1, 2008.  St. Petersburg, FL)

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