Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Onion Makes Me Cry

Well, not really, but it was too good a headline to pass up.

I've been reading The Onion for at least twelve years, and in all that time, I've never once had to say this, but: I think the onion made a mistake.

I should state that I think the Onion routinely has some of the funniest commentary there is on all topics in the news, with, obviously, their issue just after 9/11 as a prime example. I mean, people at the time were literally wondering if anything would ever be funny again. Like, if you saw a dude trip on a banana peel and fall into an open manhole, would you laugh, as you would have in the pre-9/11 world? Or would his paid simply remind you of the suffering of the 3000 dead, countless wounded, and the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, just as this man's family nearly lost him due to lax manhole safety rules?

Obviously our deep evolutionary desire to see others fail meant that this was total poppycock and we continue to laugh at such shenanigans. Because, obviously. Anyway, my point is, that was the context they were in and what did they do? They didn't just give up and skip the issue, or only do articles about other stuff. No, they churned out a brilliant issue full of 9/11 content and it was hilarious then and it is hilarious now. I truly believe that in 50 years this will still be recognized as as the best example of fighting tragedy with laughter that our culture has ever produced.

But that's not my point. My point is they usually have a good sense of these things, and today, I think they - to use a delicate term - fucked up. They fucked up pretty bad.

The chronology is a little complicated but I think I understand the gist of it. It started with this article, Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage. If it seems random, the joke is that people have been using "hostage" metaphors to describe congress's behavior in the last year or so, and so the Onion is taking it literally. The joke is also that Congress is full of horrible criminals. Anyway, they wrote the article, and then, as they have been doing a fair amount recently, they wrote a short follow-up soon afterwards.

Neither article is very funny (especially since the follow-up has a completely different tone from the original article, almost as though the author of the second wrote it without seeing the original), mostly because the majority of the article is about threatening to kill children. Which is sort of funny, but not...ha ha funny. In theory, replacing actual hostage-takers with members of congress (with funny names like "Boehner" and "Roskam") should lead to humor, but the article just has an incredibly violent tone that to me, sucks away any possible humor.

Ordinarily, that wouldn't be enough for a blog post. They Onion has run less-than-stellar articles before. So what they decided to do was to act like the story was real, and "report" it in quasi-real time on twitter. And they try to do it the way an actual news organization would - first with rumors and speculation. So their first tweet is: "
BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building." Obviously, there's no joke here. There's also no link. Of course, most people know that anything preceded by "The Onion" is not going to be true. But what if someone doesn't know that? What if I retweet this and then my doddering old aunt sees it and doesn't know where it came from? A reasonable person wouldn't read that tweet at a joke, because it's not a joke. It's just setting up a later joke.

The next tweet was: "
BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. " Here there's a joke - the armed congressmen - but it's, shall we say...subtle. The third tweet in the series links to the article. They ended up sending out 18 tweets on the story, basically narrating in real(ish) time the same story as written in the article.

The whole thing was in particularly bad taste given that a few weeks ago, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, some folks hacked into the NBC News twitter feed and posted: "
Breaking News! Ground Zero has just been attacked. Flight 5736 has crashed into the site, suspected hijacking. more as the story develops". This was followed by several more posts attempting to make people think that multiple planes had been hijacked and flown into buildings in New York City. In fact, the hacked NBC tweets feel a lot like the Onion ones, though they were actually intended to make people believe an attack had occurred. I only read about the NBC posts a few days later, but I got a very sick feeling imagining what people must have thought who read them when they were posted. Reading the Onion twitter brought the same feeling back.

The reaction to the Onion's shenanigans today was...not kind. For example, the Capitol Police had to issue a statement because too many people thought there was an actual attack on the Capitol. They were not pleased to have to spend their time doing this. Lots of people on Twitter thought the Onion account may have been hacked (not a bad guess, actually) and others hoped it had been, as that would have been better than the Onion actually thinking this was a good idea (I fall into that category). But no, they were not hacked, and in fact, the posts are all still up, and probably will stay that way.

There are a lot of questions here - was this story funny, or over the line, or both? Was the story ok but the twitter too much? Or were they all ok and people are overreacting? I think I've made it pretty clear what I think. But just in case: it was a mistake, a big one. I think they'll catch a lot of flack for it, and people will demand they apologize and take it down. I think I agree. I'm as big a free speech advocate as you'll find, so of course I think they have a right to do what they did and a right to keep it. I have the right to go up to an old lady at a bus stop and call her a d-bag. But that doesn't mean I should.

If I had to guess, I'd say lots of people are going to tell them to take it down, and they won't do it. They'll double down on it and maybe even get self-righteous and talk about how this is the purpose of satire, the voice of the comedian is often the only one telling the truth, people should know this is a joke because the onion is a joke, and we won't admit we made a mistake. So that will, of course, also be a mistake.

What's the harm in taking it down? They'll still be a hilarious publication. I'll still read it every week (what a lie - I read it every day). They aren't politicians, they won't get in trouble if they fuck up. It'll be all out of the way and forgotten within a few weeks at most.

I'm writing this because I think a lot of people will come to defend the Onion on this and accuse those of us who disagree with them of being humorless and crazy and dumb. That's silly. I love the onion, but it's possible for them to fuck up! Sure, they haven't done it before (that I know of) but they did it now. So tell those people they are wrong. The onion is amazing, but it's not perfect.


  1. Three blog posts by two authors in one day? What the hell!?

    I always thought The Onion had a terrific sense of humor, but this is really stupid. Now that they're on IFC they think they can pull stupid stunts like this?

  2. rob i forgot you existed

    it was more depressing than 9/11


  3. You're talking to a group of people who publicly make bad jokes about a real person's real wife dying of cancer.

  4. Oddly, I didn't see the original articles, and I only noticed a couple of the hostage-related tweets on twitter, but the ones I saw, I thought were kind of funny.

    This one:

    "President Obama in bullet proof vest now on Capitol steps trying to talk congressmen down"

    and this one:

    "Obama on bullhorn: 'John, I know you can hear me in there. Please, you don't need to do this.'"

    I just read out of context as kind of funny metaphors to the pending-government-shutdown situations we've had in the past few months.

    Reading the whole thread, I agree it does come across as a bit too dark

  5. i was going to say that the joke in the onion article wasn't freaking hostage metaphors, but the fact that they're asking for 12 trillion dollars in ransom. you know, to pay off the american debt? the one that's been on the news for 6 months?

    but i must say anon 10:50 has a better point.

    also, 9/11, boo fucking hoo, american invasions in response to it have killed an order of magnitude more than 3000 innocent people. military dictatorships created, funded and supported by the u.s. in the second half of the 20th century have killed TWO orders of magnitude more.

    the whole reaction to 9/11 only served to highlight and confirm how self-centered and clueless most americans are.

  6. BREAKING NEWS: Popular blog writer "laughs" at 9/11

  7. I just realised that this comments section will be full to brim with 9/11 talk. SO i'll just get my 2 cents out and run away.

    Yay Carl, very right. Good show man, but see, anyone not retarded knows that already and retarded people don't listen.

    As for 9/11, terrorism and death are truly tragedies, so maybe America should stop doing it to the middle east and acting like their retaliation was the first shot in a war.

  8. Carl, the past decade has been full of hysteria, one long-term attempt to get everyone riled up and panicky over hyperbole, rumour and simple prevarication. Satire always involves mimickry, which means a minority of people are going to take it seriously. If you get everyone in a panic then say "oh, everyone's in a panic so satirists have to stop doing what they do" then the world has lost twice.

    Also, anyone who believes anything they read on Twitter needs a reality check / LARTing / whatever the hep kids call it today. Fact: a lot of unmoderated, pseudonymous strangers speaking will come out with a whole lot of potentially misleading and/or malicious and/or genuinely ignorant crap. Fact: you're never going to be able to stop this. So the only solution is education.

    You're still overstating the problem, however. Your proverbial grandmother doesn't take her news from Twitter. No-one on the Internet for more than a couple of years takes his news from Twitter. There's a very small cross-section of people who actually regard it as in any way authoritative, whether it's reporting some celebrity rumour or carrying some glorious grass-roots movement to free the people from the repressive British^WArab regime which keeps them down.

    tl;dr American interference in the Middle East provoked 9/11, and the American response killed a thouasnd times more people. If they can't take occasionally feeling a little scared, fuck 'em.

  9. It's true. You read something serious on Twitter, you immediately check a reliable source to make sure it's true. Anybody who takes something they read on Twitter for granted deserves to be caught up in hysteria. Maybe, once they're over their indignation, they'll be left with sense of their own foolishness and be compelled to rethink where they get their facts from.

  10. fuck you carl

    no one cares

  11. I agree with.. I.

    And when you dismissively said what you imagine they'll say about satire I couldn't help but think of A Modest Proposal.

  12. Well done, Carl, you made a post so stupid that people who may remember when you wrote well are actually responding to it seriously.

  13. BREAKING NEWS: Blog writer creates site for general critique, just uses stick-figure-specific one anyway!

  14. oh i'm sorry i thought this was xkcd sucks not the onion sucks

  15. "You're talking to a group of people who publicly make bad jokes about a real person's real wife "dying of cancer. "

    No not publicly, privately and anonymously. No one here would say the stuff they say if their identity were known. I know I wouldn't.

    That said; Cancer, AIDS, Holocaust, Genocide, Infanticide, Abortion, Miscarriage, Rape, child rape, ba-ba-baby rape, Hugh Jackman.

  16. Carl it is good to have you back but RavenZOMG is right, you should probably have put this on that other blog that you abandoned

  17. This is a pretty decent post, Carl. Not great but pretty decent. Too bad you put it here, where it'll just be gawked at by uncomprehending subhumans like Rob.

  18. rob you are fat and ugly and wrong and xkcd is a great comic

  19. James, everything you've posted here is uninteresting and wrong.

  20. The "top" of the joke is not violence against children or the gunshot follow-up tweets. It's that Congress's last-ditch solution to America's debt problem is to take kids hostage and that someone, somewhere will just come up with the money. Because someone has to in these situations, right?

    Anyway. Carl and Rob and this blog are all still doing good work. The cuddlefish aren't as aggressive as they used to be. :(

  21. The Onion fucked up when it put a limit of 5 articles per month for non-American readers. Fuck. That. Noise.

  22. You mean to say that Twitter is not a good source of trustworthy news? *gasp*