The other day The Onion, self-styled as America’s finest news source, broke a story starting with the tweet:
BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside the Capitol Building.
To some of you reading out there, probably most of you online, you’re already starting to laugh because you know that’s not describing something that really happened. For the rest, you’re now even more confused as to why a newspaper intentionally reporting false information as fact should be funny.
That’s because The Onion is a satirical newspaper, and the things it posts aren’t true, or rather it says something true and meaningful in a way that isn’t factually accurate.
Naturally, the Onion’s original tweet was almost universally misunderstood, at least by those who didn’t know the fake-news source’s reputation, and a sort of panic briefly hit around the Capitol.
The follow-up made it more clear.
BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage.
By the time the actual story was written, the story’s lede, or in-a-nutshell beginning, was even more explicit.
Brandishing shotguns and semiautomatic pistols, members of the 112th U.S. Congress took a class of visiting schoolchildren hostage today, barricading themselves inside the Capitol rotunda and demanding $12 trillion dollars in cash.
While nothing about the language of the lede is obviously tongue-in-cheek, the idea of it is. And that’s the joke. But the reason it’s funny isn’t the absurdity, it’s that it’s true: children in grade school are being abused by the actions of Congress now, at least their future selves are.
Spelled out like that, it’s entirely unfunny, and that’s why the audience has to make the connection for itself; it has to find something funny, after all.
The trouble with satire is that it has to be subtle enough for there to be a leap to make, and obvious enough that most people know they have to jump. The original message was a problem of context. “Screams and gunfire” aren’t inherently funny or absurd. The Onion lamely claimed it was just doing its job. It was, but it did it badly.
These things happen.
People misunderstand written satire easily anyway. When Jonathan Swift says the Irish wouldn’t be so poor and starving if they’d just sell their children to the rich as food, he’s being ridiculous and mocking. But people still misunderstood him in the 18th century. At no point in history has anyone gone broke overestimating the stupidity of the average person.
Plus, most everyone is functionally illiterate.
“I’m not saying what I’m saying, and I’m actually saying something I’m not saying,” is a very difficult concept for an astounding amount of people to glean from print, even though as Americans we do it every day.
(“Driving to Hobbs, huh? Well, at least you’ve got nice scenery the whole way.”)
Ultimately, there’s no joke that goes too far or comes too soon, although there’s something to be said for knowing your audience.
“If there’s a lesson that can be learned from all of this, it is that the First Amendment in the wrong journalists’ hands is a very dangerous thing. We will continue to report on this incident, as well as the hundreds of more despicable acts Congress commits every day,” Editor Joe Randazzo said, in a written statement.
What really would have been funny was contrition, because no one would have expected that.