Onion Antics: Telling the Truth by Lying

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Filed under: Satire

Onion antics: telling the truth by lying
by Jon Carroll
SF Gate
October 4, 2011

The tweets started with a blast from the Onion about gunfire erupting at the U.S. Capitol building. The Onion follow-ups came thick and fast:

“BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”

“BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children being held hostage by a group of armed congressmen.”

The posts linked to an article on the Onion’s website with the headline “Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage: ‘We need $12 trillion or these kids die.'” The article also featured an obviously doctored photo of John Boehner holding a gun to a schoolgirl’s head.

The question became, of course: Was this funny? Some people took it seriously, ignoring the Onion screen name. The staffers of the Onion may be serious when they visit the doctor or take their marriage vows, but they are definitely never serious when tweeting as the Onion. Conclusion: No schoolchildren were harmed in the making of those tweets.

But maybe the idea, even as an outrageous way of discussing congressional misbehavior, crossed the line into bad taste. Some people thought so – they knew it was the Onion, and they were still not amused. The satirical payoff was nowhere in evidence, and the idea that congressmen were the perpetrators was somewhat late in coming.

Are some things just not funny, no matter the context? Do people freak out about schoolchildren in peril because it happens too often, both here and many other places around the world? The satirical point is lost among all that anxiety. Is satire that misses its mark just a bad joke?

Well, I don’t know. I have some experience doing satire for a mass audience. The Onion has 3.1 million Twitter followers, which is certainly a mass audience I would kill for. Presumably the people who follow the Onion must know what it does: It does fake news stories to elicit shocked or amused reaction. It could still be unfunny, but it was definitely untrue.

On the other hand, I have found, people just don’t pay attention to context, if they ever did. And Twitter is a medium of instant, sometimes ill-considered, reaction.

My column is known to be frequently humorous in intent, and yet sometimes the joke does not make it through the filters. So too the use of irony (which might be defined as “saying something you don’t believe in order to point out the flaws in the argument”) loses something in the translation from my keyboard to the computer screen, the newsprint, the brain of the reader.

There’s nothing worse than writing an e-mail to a sincerely puzzled reader saying, “It was just a joke.” That makes them feel silly for not getting it, despite obvious clues – I do lay down obvious clues – and it makes me feel silly because I failed. Satire that flops is no good to anyone.

Of course, some people are so thickheaded they won’t get anything. Some people read everything in the paper as though it were a news story. This column right here, for instance, is about as accurate as I can make it, and I have used all the hand-waving I know to indicate that. On the other hand, I have been known to lie in this column, so maybe some people’s suspicions are justified. I dunno.

But the Onion lies all the time. It’s a total act of imagination based on current events and trends in media. So the alert reader, faced with the first Onion tweet, would ask, “Whatever are the lads up to this time?”

Would I have done it differently, were I in charge? Yeah, I probably would have brought the gun-toting congressmen in sooner. Not that, in these perilous times, even that is a complete tip-off – some Congress members are so enamored of their guns that they might do any darn thing. An apt description for this legislature might be a phrase Kevin Kelly coined to describe a new kind of technology: “fast, cheap and out of control.”

Still, one wants one’s readers to get the point: This Congress is dangerous in oh so many ways. It threatens entire families. If you have to explain satire, you’ve pretty much lost the game. Joe Randazzo, editor of the Onion, said in a statement that the Onion would continue to report “on this incident, as well as the hundreds of more despicable acts Congress commits every day…”