Ah yes, the satirical Borowitz Report, Andy Borowitz’s liberal-leaning reshuffling of the news for the New Yorker. You either love it (funny!), hate it (toothless dad humor!) or don’t realize it’s a joke.
That third group includes Chinese state-run media.
On Tuesday, a Borowitz Report column (“Trump Orders All White House Phones Covered in Tin Foil”) was picked up online and in print by China’s Reference News, published by the state-run Xinhua news agency, the New York Times reported. By the time the article was removed Wednesday, other Chinese media were likewise fooled by the column, which includes lines about Trump “still wearing his bathrobe after what was reportedly a sleepless night” and ordering “the Secret Service to check every room in the White House for signs of former President Barack Obama.”
It’s not just Chinese media; plenty of regular people in the United States (see tweets below) read Borowitz headlines as real, particularly when seeing them on social media. And while this kind of dynamic isn’t new, is it becoming more worrisome?
— DONNA BELLINI (@DONNABELLINI1) March 7, 2017
Misinformation has become the source of widespread consternation, as political leaders, journalists and concerned citizens worry about the proliferation of fake news stories on Facebook. Even the term “fake news” has been hijacked; it no longer only refers to satire or intentionally deceptive and fabricated stories.
And the real news cycle is particularly outrageous in the eyes of liberals, the target audience for this kind of satire. Actual headlines contain eye-popping developments that can rival what a Borowitz can cook up.
Back in April 2016, Borowitz published “Ben Carson Says He Has No Memory of Running for President.” Eight months later, a Carson adviser told the Hill that Carson didn’t want to join Trump’s Cabinet because he “feels he has no government experience…. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
“Former presidential candidate Ben Carson says he won’t join Trump’s Cabinet because he has no government experience,” read a Los Angeles Times headline.
And humor site McSweeney’s published the real transcript of President Trump’s Black History Month remarks as a piece of satire.
It’s a weird moment to make political satire online. But is the onus on readers to be more discerning, or satirists and publishers to rethink their approach?
Satire works within a context that signals this is humor. The Onion has deep brand recognition, as it’s become synonymous with the unbelievable; “Not the Onion” is shorthand for an article so crazy that it sounds like a joke, but it’s actually real. And even with that kind of renown, there have been instances of people thinking Onion stories were real.
The Borowitz Report’s brand is trickier. It appears on the New Yorker’s website and is promoted by the site’s main social-media accounts. For most casual news consumers, the New Yorker is nowhere near the Onion; it publishes serious work (and the occasional cartoon). The Borowitz Report has its own brand, but it’s not as widely known as the New Yorker’s.
A 2014 piece in the Awl titled “the Borowitz Problem” argued, “Not always, but frequently, these posts are going to go viral as the result of people who don’t know they’re jokes.”
“We never want readers to mistake our satirical pieces for news stories, which is why we’ve gone to such lengths to label them as satire,” said a New Yorker spokesman. “Satire’s long been an important part of what we do and, given the current media landscape, we’re paying close attention to how this work is perceived by readers.”
In December, the Borowitz Report tagline changed from “the news, reshuffled” to “not the news.” And these pieces are more clearly marked as satire when shared online, NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson told the Associated Press last month. “Satire from the Borowitz Report” appears above (much larger) headlines. Tweets from the New Yorker’s account include “@BorowitzReport,” with images that indicate it is “not the news.”
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) March 6, 2017
Borowitz has said he doesn’t try to intentionally trick his readers into thinking his pieces are real news, telling the Ringer in 2016, “I am never trying to do a hoax.”
The new “not the news” tagline came from him. “It made more sense when people from another country would read one of my stories and not get the joke — that was kind of predictable,” Borowitz told AP. “But the fact that so many Americans have to go to Snopes.com to find out that Trump didn’t really hire El Chapo to be head of the D.E.A. or something like that, that’s a reading comprehension problem.”
If readers paid closer attention to labels and clicked through to read stories before sharing them, they wouldn’t be fooled. But as it stands, plenty of people skim social media and are still reacting to just the headlines, not realizing they’re intended as jokes:
— Vickie Hodnett (@hodnett_vickie) March 6, 2017
— Marnah Shearman (@ShearmanMarnah) March 4, 2017
— Carol Khimani (@Carolk929) February 25, 2017
For such satire, headlines serve as the punchline — that’s why the Onion focuses on them so much — and signal the pieces are fake. Each outlet has its approach; Reductress (“Man With Gender Studies Degree Terrorizes Party“) takes a serious-news tone to sarcastically describe common experiences for women; ClickHole (“Nowhere To Run: Jason Chaffetz Just Opened Up His Dishwasher And A Horde Of Angry Constituents Spilled Out“), often goes for straight-up bizarre absurdity. The Washington Post publishes satirical pieces in its opinion section with headlines that, as stand-alone sentences, can be an innocuous opening for humor (“Does Betsy DeVos know what ‘choice’ means?”) or silly (“Great news: President Trump did not bite any bats in half during his address to Congress!“).
Critics of Borowitz Report point to the quality of its headline jokes as part of the problem. Slate described the humor as “so tepid that people often share it without realizing it’s supposed to be funny.”
Particularly now, if satirical headlines lack bite and are just a hair off the truth, then they aren’t all that humorous. Especially when things like this are published as straight news:
“When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home,” reads a February New York Times article.
“Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room,” it continues. “Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.”
It’s 2017. If you’re reading or creating satire online, it’s time to step up your game.