The Onion


Satire’s conflicting kinship with journalism

jesuischarlie300So 12 are dead in Paris, with more injured. Their crime is an association with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which ridicules popes, politicians, prophets and Islamic extremists. It comes down to this. The magazine was eager to publish words and images that fanatics hated. Symbols were met with bullets.

The pen is mightier than the sword, we say, but is it mightier than the automatic rifle, the rocket launcher, the Molotov cocktail, the dirty bomb in a terrorist’s briefcase? Should journalists and satirists work in bunkers?

Journalism is a dangerous business, requiring physical and moral courage. Just look at what has happened to our war correspondents this past year. The events in Paris have demonstrated that satire is as powerful as journalism – and just as dangerous.

There are forms of satire contained in journalism, such as political cartoons and humor columns. Some forms of satire clothe themselves in the trappings of journalism, such as the Colbert Report, the Daily Show, and The Onion.

But journalism and satire are, in many ways, opposites. Good journalism has many boundaries; satire few. Good journalism practices proportionality and decorum; satire spits on them. Good journalism appeals to reason; satire tweaks the funny bone or socks the solar plexus.

Yet journalists have a huge stake in satire. Satirists stake out the territory within which all creative humans can exercise their arts. The First Amendment, it has been often said, would not be necessary to protect common speech. We have it to protect extreme, unpopular, even dangerous forms of expression. That right to free expression is not absolute, of course. It comes with responsibilities, one of which is to consider the consequences of publication.

You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, unless that theater is on fire. The creators of Charlie Hebdo yelled against fanaticism at the top of their lungs.

Nelson Poynter, creator of the Poynter Institute and former owner of the St. Petersburg Times, would not hire an editorial cartoonist. His argument was this: the editorial writer would work hard to craft an argument to make a subtle point. Behind that writer was the cartoonist, wielding a hammer. Mr. Poynter was right, I believe, in drawing a sharp distinction between journalism and satire, but he was wrong in one important sense.

Responsible journalism and responsible satire (if that is not an oxymoron) can share the same, or at least a harmonic, mission and purpose. Both forms stay alert to what is happening in the world. Both should attend to the abuse of power and the threats to the public good, whether they come from criminal elements, corporations, bureaucracies, celebrities, or governments. Journalists fulfill their mission with the accumulation and verification of evidence. Satirists use some of that same evidence but apply the strategies of irony, hyperbole, parody, inversion, juxtaposition, and caricature, making the corrupt a target of ridicule.

Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl used some of the most sophisticated cinematic strategies of her time to create “Triumph of the Will,” the ultimate deification of Hitler and the Third Reich. Charlie Chaplin saw that film and imagined his own parody in “The Great Dictator,” a devastating deflation of Nazi mythology, and one of the most popular movies of its time leading up to World War II. In hindsight, Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that he would never have made the movie, in which he plays a Jewish barber, if he had known about the concentration camps, what we now call the Holocaust. He would not have wanted to inadvertently enflame murderers to further violence.

Even a superficial study of the history of satire – begin with Wikipedia – reveals it to be an ancient form, well-established in Greek and Roman literature, and seen as potentially dangerous from the beginning. Plato himself blamed the death of Socrates, at least in part, on the ridicule heaped upon old Soc by Aristophanes in the play Clouds.

What could be more outrageous than Jonathan Swift in 1729 offering anonymously “A Modest Proposal” that poverty in Ireland could be solved by selling the oversupply of Irish babies as food for the upper class Brits: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

Of course there were those who read Swift and thought his proposal was serious – and barbarous – an encouragement of cannibalism. This reveals one of the problems of satire. The capacity to understand irony, one of the essential strategies of satire, includes the ability to embrace a message and realize that it means something different – even the opposite – of what it delivers on the literal level.

Swift and most other satirists exist in a tradition that allows them to color outside the lines. A stock character in Shakespeare was the “licensed Fool,” the court jester, one of the only figures who could speak truth to power. That license came with danger. If the King didn’t laugh his head off at your impertinence, he might decide to have yours cut off. In cultures where satirists do their best work – like America, Great Britain, and France – there exists a social contract where writers and artists can walk along a ledge with a safety rope around their ankles.

Fanatics have changed that equation. Religious leaders put a death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Countries that publish the work of Danish cartoonists see their embassies threatened. Churches of the infidels are attacked, lives lost. And now an editorial meeting is interrupted by hooded assassins.

Are we prepared wage violent war to protect the work of cartoonists and satirists? At some point, the answer has to be yes. That said, I cannot help but remember Chaplin’s statement that he would not have created his Hitler satire if he knew about the concentration camps. I want to see the movie “The Interview” as soon as I can to wave the flag of free speech against the digital terrorists who hacked SONY. But do I think it was a good idea to create a film in which American characters are sent to assassinate the living president of an actual country? My answer is no.

One of the advantages of satire is the power of the veil, the ability of artists such as Swift or Huxley or Orwell to create worlds that seem brave and new, but are really our native lands in disguise. There is no battling the killers in Paris, or those who celebrate their crimes, with words and images. They and their kind must be brought to justice. We grieve with the dead as brothers and sisters of the image and the word.

Their lives are a testament to the power and dangers of free expression – which can come with such a terrible cost. Read more


WHO blacklists BuzzFeed reporter, accidentally tells her

Good morning. Here are 10 media stories.

  1. WHO blacklists BuzzFeed reporter

    World Health Organization spokesperson Laura Bellinger mistakenly CC'd BuzzFeed reporter Tasneem Nashrulla on an email saying "My understanding is that BuzzFeed is banned." Tarik Jasarevic, another WHO staffer weighed in on another email -- Nashrulla was still CC'd -- saying only BuzzFeed reporter Jina Moore, who is covering Ebola in West Africa, was blacklisted. Jasarevic has not replied to a request from Poynter for elaboration on the thinking behind such an extraordinary (and petty) step. (Mashable) | In August, Jasarevic listed among his duties "being available to report to national and international media about the situation," but he was talking to someone who worked for Bono, not Jonah Peretti. (One)

  2. Former SPJ treasurer sentenced

    Scott Eric Cooper admitted embezzling more than $43,000 from SPJ's Oklahoma chapter and will serve a 10-year deferred sentence. He'll also make restitution payments of $350 per month and serve several weekends in jail. (The Norman Transcript) | Cooper published OKLegalNews and had won awards for his work on the alt-weekly Oklahoma Gazette; he told SPJ he had a gambling problem when he resigned in 2012. (This Land Press)

  3. NYT champions HTTPS

    Eitan Konigsburg, Rajiv Pant and Elena Kvochko issue a "friendly challenge" to news-site publishers: Use the more secure Web transfer protocol HTTPS by the end of next year. HTTPS is better for readers' privacy and improves your search engine ranking, they write. (NYT) | Follow this hashtag to see who's on board.

  4. Minneapolis mayor responds to "#pointergate"

    Betsy Hodges says it's likely "the head of the police union or other detractors will pitch more stories that attempt to defame that work and its leaders to various media outlets." (Mayor Betsy Hodges) | The Daily Show mocked the ridiculous KSTP story that sparked all this. (Minneapolis City Pages)

  5. One less platisher

    Say Media plans to sell XoJane, ReadWrite and other sites. “The conclusion we’ve come to, and one lots of media companies wrestle with is, do you build brands or do you build platforms?” CEO Matt Sanchez told Lucia Moses. “Those two are just completely different world views. It’s hard to create clarity for an organization.” (Digiday) | The Onion is considering a sale. (Bloomberg News) | Arguably but not really related: Vox says it has already crushed its traffic and revenue goals for 2015. Take the next 12 months off, folks! (NetNewsCheck) | Only vaguely related but what the heck let's stay in this item: Reddit changes chief execs, and co-founder Alexis Ohanian returns as executive chairman. (NYT)

  6. Condé Nast settles intern lawsuit

    It will pay $5.8 million. "Former interns dating back as far as June 2007 are expected to receive payments ranging from $700 to $1,900, according to the settlement." (Reuters) | "Similar lawsuits against other media and entertainment companies—including Fox Searchlight and Gawker Media—remain pending." (Gawker)

  7. Non-journalism typo of the week

    North Carolina governor's office sends out press release trumpeting a company's plans to "fire graduates from the college’s traditional degree and certificate programs." S/b "hire." (News & Observer)

  8. Poynter gets closer to selling unused land

    The University of South Florida St. Petersburg has signed a non-binding letter of intent to purchase four acres of spare land from Poynter for $6.2 million. Should the sale go through, the money will go back into Poynter, which says it is "on pace to set a record in teaching income this year." (Poynter) | Poynter Foundation honcho Chris Martin says "physical space is not as important to us as much as our growth nationally and globally." (Tampa Bay Times)

  9. Front page of the day, curated by Kristen Hare

    The Huntsville Times marks the 25th anniversary of a tornado. (Courtesy the Newseum.)


  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin

    John Cook will run investigations at Gawker Media. He is editor-in-chief of The Intercept. (Poynter) | Aaron Gell will be editorial director of Maxim. Previously, he was features editor at Business Insider. (Capital) | Maeve Reston will be a reporter with CNN Politics Digital. She is a political reporter with The Los Angeles Times. (Fishbowl DC) | Bob Sipchen will be senior editor for the California section at The Los Angeles Times. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Sierra Magazine. (Email) | Cynthia Needham will be deputy business editor at The Boston Globe. She is political editor there. Jon Chesto will be a reporter at The Boston Globe. Previously, he was managing editor of the Boston Business Journal. Sacha Pfeiffer will return to The Boston Globe to cover wealth management and power. She is the host of WBUR's All Things Considered. (Dan Kennedy) | Alexis Ohanian will be executive chairman at Reddit. He is a partner at Y Combinator. (Reddit) | Abby Livingston will be D.C. bureau chief for The Texas Tribune. Previously, she was a reporter for Roll Call. (Fishbowl DC) | Alex Leo will be head of audience development for Yahoo. Previously, she was head of product for IBT Media. (Capital) | Job of the day The San Francisco Chronicle is looking for an Oakland reporter. Get your résumés in! (Journalism Jobs) | Send Ben your job moves:

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here. Read more

Britain NSA Surveillance

Obama administration knew in advance about destruction of Guardian’s hard drives

mediawiremorningGood morning. Here are 10 media stories. Want more roundups? We got ‘em! From Sam Kirkland: “Why are so many news organizations still worried about retweets by staffers?” From Kristen Hare: “Chinese journalists get a warning; press freedoms halt in South Sudan.”

  1. Obama administration knew British government planned to force Guardian to destroy hard drives with Snowden docs: AP scores emails with a FOIA request. “‘Good news, at least on this front,’ the current NSA deputy director, Richard Ledgett, said at the end of a short, censored email to then-NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and others. The subject of that July 19, 2013, email was: ‘Guardian data being destroyed.’” (AP) | FLASHBACK: Video of Guardian editors destroying hard drives while technicians from the Brtitish intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) watched. (The Guardian)
  2. More Canadian papers close: Torstar’s Star Media Group will close Metro papers in Regina, Saskatchewan; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and London, Ontario. 25 positions will go. (Financial Post) | Metro will still have papers in seven other Canadian cities and online editions in four more. Star Media Group President John Cruickshank: “This decision does not reflect any change in our commitment to Metro’s future, both in print in larger markets and in digital in all markets.” (The Canadian Press) | Earlier this month: Torstar shut down Toronto magazine The Grid. “The media landscape continues to be impossible for a start-up,” its editor-in-chief said. (Toronto Star) | “The Grid was not a startup.” (Craig Silverman)
  3. The smoking gun? “The last two Twitter accounts that the official @TeamLeBron account followed? @ohiodotcom and @AkronBeacon.” (@EliLanger) | “Twitter feed sprinkled with reporters landing in Gaza and Cleveland.” (@MickiMaynard) | Related: Nike paid for Benjamin Markovits to write a story about LeBron James. Then it had the piece killed. (Deadspin)
  4. George Clooney racks up another USA Today byline: He does not accept the Daily Mail’s apology. “[E]ither they were lying originally or they’re lying now.” (USA Today)
  5. Madison’s Isthmus changes hands: Former Onion executives Jeff Haupt and Craig Bartlet teamed with former Green Bay Packers lineman Mark Tauscher to buy Madison, Wisconsin, alt-weekly Isthmus. (Wisconsin State Journal) | Former Isthmus owner Vince O’Hern: “I die a little bit when I think of the large part of my life that I leave behind.” (Isthmus) | “Long live the publication with the funny name.” (Isthmus)
  6. Retweets aren’t endorsements at NYT: “I think Twitter users by now understand that a retweet involves sharing or pointing something out, not necessarily advocating or endorsing,” Times standards editor Philip Corbett says. (Poynter) | “Are NPR, the AP, and Reuters’s editorial reputations really so fragile that a 140-character tweet or retweet by a staffer can blow the whole thing down?” (Reuters)
  7. Don’t expect any reality shows about being a TV critic: “Some jobs are just too hideous to contemplate,” Mike Rowe says. (Capital)
  8. How hotels ditching print newspapers affects the recycling industry: “For every major hotel chain that made these changes, it would be like eradicating newspapers from a city like Akron, Ohio, Tacoma, Wash., Birmingham, Ala. or Des Moines, Iowa.” (Waste360)
  9. MSM Weed Watch: Here’s a very good interactive guide to medical marijuana strains. (Los Angeles Times) | “Like any great accessory, a flashy vaporizer pen can be a conversation starter.” (The New York Times) | Man featured on front page purchasing pot legally says he’s losing his job (The Spokesman Review, via Jim Romenesko)
  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin: Julia Rubin will join, a fashion website. She was formerly online features editor for Teen Vogue. (@juliarubin) | Johana Bhuiyan will be a tech reporter at Buzzfeed. She was a digital media reporter at Capital New York. (Muck Rack) | Rick Green is managing editor for Bloomberg Industries. Formerly, he was a senior finance editor at Bloomberg. Andrew Thurlow is a real estate, sports and retail reporter for Jacksonville Business Journal. Formerly, he was a reporter for Automotive News. (Muck Rack) | Nathan Baca will be an investigative reporter at WBNS in Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a reporter at KLAS in Las Vegas. (Mediabistro) | Sarah Gilbert will be supervising senior editor of NPR’s Weekend Edition. She is currently managing editor of Marketplace. (FishbowlDC) | Rachel Dodes is Twitter’s partner manager for motion pictures. She was previously a film reporter for the Wall Street Journal. (FishbowlNY) | Amina Akhtar will be editorial director of She was formerly executive editor of Elle. (Adweek) | Megan Moser will be executive editor of the Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury. Formerly, she was the paper’s news editor. (AP) | Send Ben your job moves:

Suggestions? Corrections? Would like me to send you this roundup each morning? Please email me:

Want more? Check out Sam Kirkland’s roundup of tech and social media news in Digital Day, and Kristen Hare’s roundup of journalism news outside the U.S. in MediaWireWorld. Read more


Onion ends print edition

Crain’s Chicago Business

The Onion will stop its remaining print editions Dec. 12, Lynne Marek reports.

“It’s sad to see a print edition no longer exist, but it’s important to see the Onion succeed,” Onion Inc. President Mike McAvoy tells her. The Onion’s print edition, which used to be available in 17 markets, Marek writes, was down to three markets: Chicago, Milwaukee and Providence, R.I.

In 2011, the satirical paper ran an article saying print media was “the closest thing there is to a money tree.” Read more


BuzzFeed one-ups The Onion

The Onion, at 4:14 p.m. Monday:

BuzzFeed, just 25 minutes later:

Read more


Guardian Facebook app causes ‘seismic shift’ in social traffic, and The Onion launches its own | The GuardianThe Onion | Yahoo News
The Guardian is turning a profit with its “frictionless sharing” Facebook app, director of digital development Tanya Cordrey says, having generated enough ad revenue to cover the development costs. She also predicted that thanks to this app the Guardian will soon get more digital readers via social media than via search. That would stand in sharp contrast to most news sites, which get twice as much traffic from search engines than social media, according to PEJ’s State of the News Media report. Read more


The Onion’s Baratunde: ‘I’m not a journalist’

Will Houghteling, head of government partnerships at YouTube, interviewed The Onion’s Digital Director Baratunde Thurston at the News Xchange conference in Portugal on Thursday. Read more


The Onion editorial staff to move from New York to Chicago

Huffington Post | Crain’s Chicago Business
The Onion moved staffers from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City in 2001, so it could expand its product line — “sheets, towels and a signature line of anodized aluminum cookware” — and be part of a larger comedy scene. “(New York, according to reports, has a larger comedy-writing community than you might find amid Madison’s head shops and Tibetan restaurants,” the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Johnson wrote a decade ago.) Now editorial staffers have been told they’ll relocate to Chicago before next summer. “Everybody is a little bit blindsided, and there are those who are determined to stay in New York,” says features editor Joe Garden. “I can tell you that the [New York] mayor’s office has been informed.” An Onion spokesperson says: “We’re still in the very early stages of this process, but we’re looking forward to eventually having everyone under one roof in Chicago,” where CEO Steve Hannah and other corporate staffers relocated in 2007. || NYT in 2006: “The absence of solid Midwestern comfort food [in New York] has posed a challenge for the paper’s art department, which requires a certain girthiness of many of the people who pose for the fake news photos.” Read more


The Onion: Print media ‘closest thing there is to a money tree’

The Onion
The satirical newspaper reports that the way to weather the economic storm isn’t by investing in gold, bonds or CDs. It’s print media, “the closest thing there is to a money tree.” The advice to nervous investors: “You should be pouring all your cash into your local broadsheet right this second.” They recommend diversifying one’s investments with national and regional papers, as well as dailies and weeklies. “Other products fail, real estate bubbles burst, but print media is here to stay. The only retirement strategy anyone needs is as close as their local newsstand.” || Related: Readers loved The Onion’s 9/11 issue, even though it wasn’t that funny Read more


Readers loved The Onion’s 9/11 issue, even though it wasn’t that funny

Yahoo News
Dylan Stableford talks to Onion writer John Krewson about the satirical newspaper’s legendary 9/11 issue, which came out a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks. The Onion was supposed to have published its first issue in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, but it never went to press. The next week, the staff gathered to plan its next issue. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to ignore what had happened, but it was hard to make any sort of comedy,” Krewson says. Although the staff wasn’t sure how the issue would be received, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “I’d say it was the least funny issue we’ve ever done,” Krewson says. “But it was cathartic.” Among the memorable stories in the 9/11 issue:

More headlines in the Yahoo News post.

Related: Front pages from 2001 to 2011 tell story of 9/11 decade, from WTC attacks to war on terror and bin Laden’s death; News outlets ask their readers, “Where were you?“‘

Correction: This post originally stated that the Sept. 11, 2001, issue was The Onion’s first. It was to be the first one in New York. Read more


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