A Final Word on the New, Dry Onion

Remember the good times.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My colleague Farhad Manjoo talked to the Onion’s editor-in-chief for a reported story on something I merely mused about this week—what’s with the bumper crop of ego-pleasing but unfunny stories at the satire site?

Last week—which coincided with the paper’s 25th birthday—The Onion received nearly 6 million page views in a single day, a record. The traffic surge was due to the popularity of “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning,” a fake opinion piece that carried the fake byline of Meredith Artley, managing editor of CNN.com.

It was a typical piece for the new Onion: reactive, biting, and instantly viral. (It has earned almost 400,000 Facebook likes.) To me, though, the CNN piece illustrated one of the weaknesses of the new Onion. Whereas in the past, its political jokes were absurdist, surprising, and rarely partisan—an abortion point-counterpoint from 1999 pits “Life Begins At Conception” against “Life Begins At 40!”, a piece that I’m pretty sure elicited my life’s only legitimate spit-take—the new Onion sometimes aims for Jon Stewart’s game: ultra-clever but also a little scoldy, oversmart, and lacking much nuance.

Obviously humor is subjective; the polite readers who’ve told me that I don’t understand satire and am jealous of the Onion have made this clear. But really, the site does seem clunkier and more obvious on the big stories. Take the example of this subject: the sentiment that the politicians who decide to make war should fight it themselves. In 2003 the site’s version of the joke was titled “Bush Bravely Leads 3rd Infantry Into Battle,” illustrated with photo art of the man himself gritting his teeth in full uniform. Some of the quotes came from people like “Tom Scharpling” and “Jon Benjamin,” winking references to comedians.

The president has only been in battle for less than a week, but he has already proven himself more than willing to put himself in the line of fire.

“The president carried me through an enemy minefield after my arm had been blown off by a mortar shell, blazing away with his pistol as he delivered me to safety,” Pvt. Chris Adair said.

“Then, after he’d gotten me to a medic, he went all the way back through that same minefield—carrying a 40-pound bag of ice the whole way—to retrieve my severed arm so the doctors could sew it back on. Now, thanks to President Bush, I’ll still be able to play piano for the church choir back home in Appleton, just like I promised Grandma. He is truly an American hero.”

The 2013 version of this story is titled “Poll: Majority Of Americans Approve Of Sending Congress To Syria.” It has 87,000 Facebook shares; around 20 of my friends on that social network have shared it. (Here is the cue to accuse me of pettiness, because I have not written anything so shareable this week.) Instead of a tale of soldiers learning to respect their heroic commander-in-chief, we get poll numbers and comments from fake poll respondents about how we should send Congress to war, illustrated by an unretouched photo of congressional leaders.

Citing overwhelming support from the international community—including that of the Arab League, Turkey, and France, as well as Great Britain, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Japan, Mexico, China, and Canada, all of whom are reported to be unilaterally in favor of sending the U.S. Congress to Syria—the majority of survey respondents said they believe the United States should refocus its entire approach to Syria’s civil war on the ground deployment of U.S. senators and representatives, regardless of whether the Assad regime used chemical weapons or not.

In fact, 91 percent of those surveyed agreed that the active use of sarin gas attacks by the Syrian government would, if anything, only increase poll respondents’ desire to send Congress to Syria.

Up to you, loyal reader, but I think the decade-old story made the point in a less didactic way. And that’s it for now—I seek no wider war between Slate and the Onion.