To celebrate its 1000th issue, the Onion is demanding a Pulitzer.
Its aggressive campaign for journalism’s highest prize, headed by AFAJP (Association for Fairness in the Awarding of Journalism Prizes) and with the help of Tom Hanks, Russ Feingold, Ricky Gervais, Dave Barry, and other luminaries, may seem far-fetched. But is it?
“Wit has some truth in it,” Dorothy Parker said. “Wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.” The Onion has so much truth in it that there exists an entire website dedicated to people incapable of realizing that it is fiction. Literallyunbelievable.org consists entirely of posts by people who are startled and alarmed by headlines such as “Revolutionary New Homophobia Immersion Therapy Involves Lowering Patient Into Tank Of Gays”(“Really..?LOL....well, if it works??”) or “Disgusted Supreme Court Can’t Believe It Has To Rule Having Sex With American Flag Protected Under First Amendment.” (“That guy that did this is totally pathetic. Shame on the Supreme Court on their decision.”)
But this begs the question: do we live in a golden age of satire or the exact opposite?
With the erosion of the authority of The Media and everyone’s willingness to believe that Those Who Do Not Agree With Us Are Lying, Onion stories are being cited rather more often than not as examples of Ways Society Is Awry.
It’s telling that Google News has started discriminating in its story tags between Satire and Not. The fact that this is at all necessary suggests that things have gotten pretty bad. Maybe satire is dead. Or maybe it’s the only thing that exists.
Occasionally I will write something with at least part of my tongue planted in the general vicinity of my cheek, and I will be deluged with irate emails from strangers demanding to know who is responsible for the Most Poorly Written News Story They Have Ever Encountered In Their Entire Lives.
Much of this is my own fault. It is difficult to convey the proper tone when ensconced in a Major News Website, even when your writing is accompanied by a caricature. In person, I look far less like an enthusiastic greyish oval, but conveying that with an image might imply mistakenly that I had any gravitas, and that would not do at all.
But the trouble is that the combination of the Internet and jokes can be rather volatile. Online, it’s impossible to tell if people are joking. From satirical sites like Christwire.org and The Onion to humbler parodies, the Internet does not discriminate. It does not respect sources. As someone who once had to confirm that reports of Justin Bieber’s support for a mosque at Ground Zero were exaggerated, I have lost my faith in our ability to distinguish between satire and reality.
Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, said Jonathan Swift, the most noted satirist in the past three hundred years. His A Modest Proposal, suggesting that the Irish people could fix many problems by eating their children, remains a classic of the genre. Were Jonathan Swift alive today, he’d be having a blast, urging everyone to eat babies and igniting flame wars right and left. Or would he? The trouble is that some people might believe him.
The world we live in now might equally be Swift’s heaven or his Hell. Stephen Colbert can testify, in character, before a House immigration hearing. Jon Stewart can show up on the Chris Wallace show and tell him his viewers are misinformed and crazy. Actual Newsmen are occasionally reduced to dressing up as bunnies to make a point. And Fox News now seems to think Sarah Palin and Tina Fey are functionally interchangeable.
The art of satire consists of heightening the ridiculous part of something true until everyone can see how absurd it is. But when something is already as heightened as it can get, what can you do? Have you ever met an artist capable of parodying Lady Gaga? She wore a meat dress! That’s almost past the point where mockery can penetrate.
And the commentary equivalent of that is true as well. To draw attention in this curious screaming media landscape, everyone seeks to embody the extreme. Westboro Baptist Church pickets military funerals with obscene signs. Then the Ku Klux Klan protests them. This is real life! Where can mockery go?
Truth tends to be, if not stranger than fiction, at least more clumsily-assembled. Fiction is how it looks in the Ikea catalogue, and fact is what shows up after you take the Allen key to it yourself. But the line is blurrier than it used to be.
In the online realm where we converse with our keyboards and no one can see us grinning, trolls abound, gleefully emptying their bladders into the wells of public discourse. Are you saying that as a joke? Or do you actually believe that about the moon landing? Who can say?
Perhaps the Onion does merit a prize. Reality is so bizarre, jokes and seriousness, fact and fiction so helplessly intertwined, that it’s hard to figure out where to go from here. And yet the Onion does — and has for 1000 issues.
Eligible for a Pulitzer? Why not? It seems just incredible enough that it might be true.