Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did the Onion Cross the Line?

The Onion, if you're not familiar, is a "news" outlet that puts out a printed newspaper, a TV show and a website absolutely chock full of fake news. Typical headlines are things like, "Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What's Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions" and "Syracuse Leaves Big East For Woman Named 'Misti'." The Onion, in my humble opinion, varies between mildly amusing and downright hilarious, and occasionally it hits the nail on the head with its headlines in ways that make you say, "What's sad is, that's almost true."

From time to time, the Onion gets in trouble because someone doesn't realize they're kidding. There is, in fact, an entire blog devoted to people taking the Onion literally on Facebook, often with hilarious results. Many years ago, when the Onion published a story saying that Congress was threatening to leave Washington unless they got a new Capitol building with sky boxes, it got picked up by the official media in China and reported as factual evidence of the failures of capitalism.

Today there was another such Onion incident. The Onion ran an article on its website with the headline, "Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage." The tagline was, "'We need $12 trillion or all these kids die.'" This was accompanied by a doctored photo of John Boehner with a gun to the head of a little girl.

The Onion then began sending tweets, the first of which read, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building." This got retweeted enough times and alarmed enough people that the phones at the Capitol Police Department started ringing off the hook. They actually began an investigation, because by this point, although they knew the story was false, they couldn't figure out where it had started.

So the question is, is this just another case of people not getting an Onion joke, or did the Onion actually do something wrong here? I think it's the latter, but apparently for a different reason than most commentators out there.

My take is this: the Onion is funny because they manage to run stories that relate to reality in some way but are just off the wall enough that if you're paying attention you know they can't be true. In this instance, the notion that Congress is "holding the country hostage" is not a new one, but no one really thinking about it would believe that John Boehner actually was threatening little children with a firearm. You may or may not like the politics of this story, and you may or may not think it was funny, but it was clearly intended as a joke. Most of the comments out there about this mess suggest that such a story by itself, or with the picture, crosses the line of decency. I actually think that is not the problem

The problem is that, when the Onion started tweeting, they did something crucially different than what they did in the original story. That first tweet had absolutely nothing in it that would even hint that it was supposed to be a joke. There wasn't anything about how Congress, as a whole, was taking hostages. That's the part we knew was false. All it said was that there was gunfire and screams at the Capitol. That was purely believable, and because of that it wasn't funny.

You might argue that anyone who knows anything about the Onion should have known it wasn't true anyway, and you would have a point. However, not everyone knows the Onion, and once people started retweeting and the original author was lost in the stream, people seeing this tweet had no way to know that it wasn't real. The Onion lost control of the joke. In hindsight, at least, that seems pretty predictable.

The Onion's sin here wasn't making fun of violence at the Capitol. It was joking in a way that did not insure that everyone would at least have a chance to be in on the joke. I hope the folks over at the Onion learned a lesson, because I'd hate to feel like I can't read it anymore. It's pretty funny.

This post was updated on September 30 at 11:09 PM.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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