The Onion, Hostages and the US Congress: a Case Study on Satire Falling Flat ?

So apparently, The Onion stunned fans and journalists alike today thanks by this post on the Onion’s FB page.

BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building. Stay tuned for more details.

The status update managed to sound pretty realistic despite the reputation of the Onion for being a satirical media outlet. People started expressing how ill-at-ease they were, to say the least, in front of a piece of news that looked real. The many “likes” did not make up for the concerned comments of fans : “!?!?!?!? Onion, this one’s maybe not funny?” or “thats (sic) really not funny at all” capture here by journalofajournalist:


I love The Onion, but this is the definition of a massive social media fail.

Update: Replaced with better photo.

Then, a legitimate news source (Newsweek per its Tumblr blog) voiced its concern as well. (screencap by me, source )

The bottom text might be hard to read. It says:

Just stop, Onion. Tweeting a faux-breaking news report of “screams and gunfire” inside the Capitol, especially on a day that brings more details about a homegrown terror threat targeting D.C. with drone-delivered C-4, is just too real a threat to spoof.

It clearly makes a case for the #toosoon or #wrongtiming arguement to dismiss the Onion’s initiative as of poor taste.

Indeed, in the meantime, The Onion had pursued its operation du jour, revealing more and more post (including a video allegedly take from a cell phone) in the same tone of the first status update. (screen caps by me, source as of 29/09/11, 18:51 GMT+1 and it keeps on going on)

Turns out the first status update wasn’t just a single joke about an hostage situation at the Capitol, but a preliminary set-up for a more elaborate, more intricate day-long operation-joke-thingie. This operation, taking place simultaneously on Facebook, Twitter and the Onion website (my guess is that @baratunde must be behind this perfectly coordinated and exectued social media event/performace) is putting the tired “Congress/politicians/the White House is holding us hostages” metaphor-talking point on its head and actually depicts a “real” hostage crisis in D.C. (the frog dies about right now). How meta.

The way I see it, by now, the Onion managed two things:

- it destroys the US Congress, in the tradition of the anti-parliamentarism satirical journalists of a bygone era. You can’t really go further that the Onion as it does today with tweets like this one (which not-so-implicitely also rise the question of gun control).

- it waves a gigantic middle finger at a lot of ‘real’ news sources who are the echo chambers of the tired “Congress/politicians/the White House is holding us hostages” metaphor-talking point and showing how atrocious and insane real hostage crisis are. The cellphone video on the Onion website shows [spoiler alert] kids crying, talks of killing them and a gunshot. It’s the Onion’s way of saying (and I’ve written about the media watchdog role of satirical journalism before) :

This is what happens in real hostage crisis situations, claiming a strike, an obtuse president or a broken parliamentary system is taking you hostage is an insult to those who have ever been taken hostage for real. As in “gun-to-the-side-of-the-head” real.

Politicians, media, enjoy your sick burn. You have been served today.

So where do we go from here? What about all those people who did not find the joke very funny in the first place and may still find it of poor taste, or still unfunny. Well if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, reasons reluctance/resistance to satire may be in the mind of its audience.

From my master’s thesis:

[S]atire, and political humor in general, can fall flat and fail to find its audience or simply to be funny. It seems obvious, but “there is such a thing as bad satire (or satire gone bad, as some authors point out), and even failed satire [such as] Fox’s recently failed fake news show, The Half Hour News Hour. ” ( Collins, 2009, p.296) Without laughter, there will not be any perlocutionary effect, or any other of its powers we identified earlier. A twist to this topic of satire failing to achieve its goal is that, “[b]ecause satire is often ambiguous, biased information processing models provide an excellent framework for understanding how audiences see what they want to see in [for instance] Colbert’s political satire” (LaMarre et al., 2009, p.213) According to the authors, there is always the possibility that, since satire – and especially the deadpan (meaning Stephen Colbert never breaks character, he is always the over-the-top conservative pundit) satire in TCR – is not a political source very easy to comprehend, it leaves room for misinterpretation that would prohibit some viewers to ‘get’ the satirist’ jokes the way he or she intended them to be.


Poorly made or too ambiguous satire/humor and biased reception are not the only limitation to the genre. Serious national crisis can hamper the field of action of satire: “when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came down, the public discourse of irony seemed, for a time at least, to be part of the collateral damage.” (Dettmar, 2006, p.135) The author reminds us that Bill Maher, a late-night talk show host was fired in the wake of 9/11. He had made a joke about the plane hijackers who obviously died during the attacks not being cowards, by opposition to the US armed forces who were bombing Afghanistan at a safe distance. It seems that, according to Dettmar, there was a political motivation behind this firing, and to a larger extent behind the suppression of dark/gallows humor and irony at the time. “Right-wing pundits (…) have simply counterposed irony to civic responsibility and political conscience” (op.cit., p.142) and in time of national mourning and rally-round-the-flag, dualistic rhetoric, bordering to jingoism on conservative shows, using irony was willfully portrayed by conservatives as an un-American activity. Dettmar, however, ends up on a more optimistic note, triggered by some polls about the audience of TDS, he affirms that “irony now is the single most responsive and responsible form of political dis course available to us.” (op.cit., p.141)

Other works echo the sort of muzzling of humor and irony after a national catastrophe, such as the attacks of 9/11, Achter for instance tells the story of the time when the reaction to “attack-related jokes were palpable, and crowds sometimes vocal – groaning and complaining, for example, when a Seattle comedian told a 9/11 joke and was ushered off stage by a club owner” (Achter, 2008, p.275) He too finishes on a brighter note, and describes the post-9/11 issue of the satirical publication The Onion: “[b]y foregrounding 9/11 as a news event, the (…) issue provided a second-world, carnivalesque perspective that challenged the authority of the mainstream news to define the event and articulated new ways for citizens to conceptualize its meaning.”(op.cit., p.287) Those instances of exterior events affecting the carnivalization of news are prime examples illustrating something we have seen earlier, that is how “genres are not neutral categories but are situated within larger systems of power and thus come ‘fully loaded’ with political implications.” (Mittel, 2001, p.19)


Reception is biased - causing people to find the Onion #congresshostage not funny-  because:

- Satire, especially if deadpan (like that first status update), is too ambiguous and hard to comprehend so it leaves room for misinterpretation that would prohibit some viewers to ‘get’ the satirist’ jokes the way he or she intended them to be.

- 522 weeks into the War on Terror, the climate of fear and suspicion is still so high that attack/terrorism/hostage jokes, especially when taking place in Washington D.C. are still frowned at.

America, grow up, it’s satire, nothing more, nothing less. How long before these #toosoon recriminations are finally over?