Two separate takes on The State Of The Onion have run in Slate this week, What happened to the Onion? Two words: The Internet, by Farhad Majoo, and The Onion: Not Funny. (A #SlatePitches Special Report), by Dave Weigel. They’re both interesting reads, although I do kind of worry that we’re about to enter into Saturday Night Live used to be better territory here. I take issue with the central complaint of both pieces, namely that an obvious and cheap self-righteous liberalism is polluting the comedy pool.
Writing about their recent string of stories (which prompted The New Republic to call The Onion “the country’s best op-ed page,”), Weigel asks “how funny are these Syria pieces, really? Many are fairly crisp and blunt, and evident of a micro-Trend of ultra-shareable Onion pieces that just restate what a certain sort of liberal thinks.” He implores the site to “not turn into a hivemind version of Andy Borowitz, telling liberals that what they already think is not only true but oh-so-arch.”
Manjoo returns to that premise as well, writing “Whereas in the past, its political jokes were absurdist, surprising, and rarely partisan,” the new Onion, he suggests, takes a much easier road toward virality, what he calls “Jon Stewart’s game: ultra-clever but also a little scoldy, oversmart, and lacking much nuance.”
“In an attempt to make a viral joke, the new Onion often makes an easy one,” he writes. And The Onion’s CNN piece (which I parodied here myself) “wasn’t especially thoughtful—that cable news emphasizes shallow sensationalism isn’t much of an insight, after all.”
It’s a reasonable point, and one I’ve railed against frequently, (also in The New Republic, writing about the cheap talking points-based feedback bubble that constitutes the horrible humor of the likes of Borowtiz and company), but I think there’s more to The Onion’s liberalized click-bait gambit than that.
“If part of our mission is to accurately and comprehensively parody what a news organization does, then we needed to adapt by doing more timely stuff, by making our company feel more digital, by adapting to social media,” The Onion’s editor Will Tracy is quoted as saying. “If we do that, we actually look more like what we’re trying to parody.”
The slideshows, listicles, and obvious jabs at the traffic-at-all-cost mentality are clearly meant to satirize modern publications, but I think that the real punchline of pieces like the Syria op-eds and other irresistible, liberal-minded share-traps goes a little further than that. What about the people who would be inclined to share those pieces in the first place, in the typical knee-jerk react-and-repost style that passes for political discourse now?
Perhaps that’s over-thinking it, but isn’t it possible that instead of satirizing Middle Eastern politics, or American warmongering, or the media’s coverage of both, that pieces like this poke fun at more than the content of what we read, but the process of reading itself? Publications aren’t solely responsible for the highly-sharable model we’re all mired in, the readers deserve a healthy portion of the blame too for following through on the temptation of the cynical like-mongering. In that light the CNN post wasn’t actually about Miley Cyrus, or about CNN, or even about media at all so much as it was about you, and as is usually the case when The Onion sets its sights on a target, you don’t come out looking so great.