Opinion: In the Age of ‘Alternative Facts,’ Remember: The Onion is Satire

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June 24, 2022

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It’s often said that in war, truth is the first casualty.

To turn that phrase a bit, in a culture war, the first casualty is satire.

I’ve been an avid reader of the satirical news agency The Onion, back in its earliest days in the 1980s when I was still in college.  Later in the early 2000s, when I was an assistant news director working in Madison, Wisconsin, I took special pride in working in the same city as The Onion’s main office (which is now in Chicago.)

The Onion’s articles since have stayed reliably outrageous, edgy, and clever. From its archival headline announcing the Titanic disaster, WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG, to its underlying social commentary with MEN FIRED IN WAKE OF #METOO COME FORWARD ABOUT HOW IT TOOK THEM SEVERAL HOURS TO FIND NEW JOBS, The Onion has lampooned real-life news for over 30 years, blossoming into a media empire that has seen an explosion of subscribers, a news video unit, books, movie, and a Peabody Award in 2008.

With that distinguished accolade, presenters credited The Onion with presenting satirical news more deftly than SNL’s Weekend Update and Comedy Central productions including The Colbert Report, adding The Onion provides “ersatz news that has a worrisome ring of truth.”

In 2008, news satire was fairly easy to pinpoint, even if “deftly” rendered by a veteran organization like The Onion.  After Barack Obama beat John McCain in the presidential race, its headline proclaimed BLACK MAN GIVEN NATION’S WORST JOB, with a smaller article headlined, MCCAIN GETS HAMMERED AT LOCAL VFW. To its faithful readers, the satire read clear and true: whimsical, with a pinch of “that could possibly be.”

Less than a decade later, a real estate mogul and reality TV star, Donald Trump, would test The Onion in unprecedented ways.  Already igniting headlines with his calls for Obama to produce his birth record in 2012, Trump would lambast the Fourth Estate at campaign rallies, with some crowds cheering “lugenpresse” (“lying press” in German). At the Indiana primary in 2016, Trump tied GOP rival Ted Cruz’s father to Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy, as well as repeating a claim that he saw Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the 9-11 attacks.  None of those have been proven true.

President Trump was no less aggressive on derailing reality than candidate Trump. The Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, promoted “alternative facts” in addressing criticisms about his administration’s claims. From grossly inflating the crowd size at his inauguration to broadly casting Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” the 45th POTUS essentially jump-started the fact-checking industry, with many news outlets choosing in Trump’s final year to only broadcast excerpts of his addresses, as it became too arduous to debunk his falsehoods and exaggerations in real time. 

The Onion’s editor-in-chief, Chad Nackers, did not respond to requests to discuss his publication’s challenges during this administration. But in a POLITICO piece, Nackers shared the distinctions in poking fun at two very different presidents:

“Obama was more of a traditional president as far as his decorum and even his preparation and policy,” said Nackers.  “He seemed like a pretty organized guy. You leap off of that and so things can be more surreal and absurd when you’re making fun of him. Whereas Trump is kind of starting from this point of already being kind of absurd.”

Adding to the confusion since has been Trump’s doubling down against reality after leaving the Oval Office, including repeated assertions that the 2020 election was stolen.  Add the continuous – often deafening- roar of the culture wars on social media, and misinterpreting satire for fact isn’t limited to politics anymore.  Recent articles by BoredPanda and SadAndUseless.com show instances where Onion articles elicited genuine outrage from some audiences who didn’t get the joke. This included a September 2018 tweet with the headline KAVANAUGH SOBERING UP AFTER 35-YEAR BENDER SHOCKED TO FIND OUT HE’S SUPREME COURT NOMINEE, to which a reader responded, “Another Socialist NewsMedia…SHAME ON YOU!!”

This isn’t to say readers haven’t fallen for gag journalism before. But in an era where factual news competes routinely with deliberate misinformation/disinformation campaigns spread quickly across social media (think Putin’s statements on the Ukraine invasion, or continued claims that vaccines cause autism) the potential for confusing legitimate fact for folly seems amplified more than ever.    

So in 2022 going forward, the (sadly necessary) reminder is this: The Onion’s clever articles pack a punch, but they also pack a punchline.

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