Is The Onion's Apology Bad for Satire?

The Atlantic Wire

After an Oscar night uproar over a deleted tweet that used the c-word in a "joke" to describe 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, The Onion's new chief executive is attempting to put the incident behind the paper of satirical record with an apology calling the tweet "a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire" that was "inconsistent with The Onion's commitment to parody and satire." But beyond the seemingly bottomless offense within the tweet itself, an important question remains, under the paper's new website and the increased scrutiny of real-time social-media humor: Can The Onion still be The Onion now?

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Onion CEO Steve Hannah's apology, posted late Monday morning on the paper's Facebook page, quickly stole the Oscar hangover conversation from dresses and Seth MacFarlane, certainly for its offensiveness but also for the precedent it sets at the transforming bastion of Internet humor. Frustrated former staffers lost in The Onion's recent reshuffling claim it's the first time the paper has had to retract anything, and the apology contains vague promises of "new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again." Hannah's office and several current and former Onion staffers did respond to requests for comment to clarify the changes, but readers and media observers are already saying that the paper that pushes the envelope the most might have dug itself into a ditch here. What happens if The Onion doesn't want to go there anymore? Here's how the post-apology camps are aligning:

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Camp No. 1: The Onion has a new limit, and that's bad for creativity.

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New York Times media critic David Carr pointed out that Onion staffers are no in something of a bind, with Hannah — and not the editorial or social-media staff — drawing a new line in the sand:

Onion to writers: Tweet incredibly edgy, funny stuff. If you go over the line, we'll just slide you under the bus.

— david carr (@carr2n) February 25, 2013

The worry here is that the apology could, at some point, stifle writers and/or tweeters — and compromise the paper's normally unflinching editorial freedom:

Steve Hannah will use this to shuttle last shreds of editorial say from creative-->management & ad sales. Cunt is the onion's reichstag fire

— chrhs srrtknsky (@csartinsky) February 25, 2013

Hannah, who took over in 2004 but recently relocated the paper to Chicago and lost much of his editorial staff in the process, may have set a precedent of perceived oversensitivity — from the inside-out, and some readers were already concerned that you might not be seeing more headlines like this: "Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He's Not A Festering Pile Of Shit."

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Several former top staffers left in the reshuffling to start a side project with Adult Swim called Thing X, where the Facebook page today contained a harsh — if tongue-in-cheek — message from a fake CEO named "Steve Banannah":

In addition, let me take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who's ever been offended by anything at any point throughout time. To be challenged in any way, or made to feel an emotion that is not immediately recognizable, is the worst thing in the world, and something for which the incredible human gift of language should never, ever be used. We are sorry if your feelings were ever hurt about anything.

Camp No. 2: The Onion wasn't apologizing at all?

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The commenters on the paper's Facebook apology got a little too meta, which is distracting:

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Camp No. 3: The Onion's apology is good enough, and this should be over already.

New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum articulated the offensiveness of the c-word tweet on Oscar night, pointing out that The Onion wasn't satirizing Wallis but rather the culture of celebrity gossip. And she seems satisfied with Hannah's apology:

Solid, straightforward apology from The Onion. RT @theonion: The Onion Apologizes on.fb.me/Zvcm1q

— emilynussbaum (@emilynussbaum) February 25, 2013

Camp No. 4: The Onion's apology is just the start of a conversation on race and sexism?

A lot of people love The Onion for challenging the prevailing wisdom — people on Twitter often say how excited they are for the paper to come along and make the best joke. But there's a deeper question, of whether any offensive remark sort of causes the bottom to fall out of the Internet, with camps-within-camps — those who are suddenly deciding the parameters of who's allowed to be offended and who's not. Take a look at one of the discussions on our own original story about the blunder: 

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And a more outright "get over it" came from libertarian Huffington Post blogger Radley Balko:

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So, yes, The Onion may not have been trying to offend Wallis directly, but the paper's boss has said as much, but the paper also offended a lot of people in the process, and the cycle of offensiveness online these days goes well beyond The Onion's apology — into grounds of racism and sexism, presumably beyond what The Onion ever considered it had done wrong. This pretty lengthy Twitter discussions between Buzzfeeders McKay Coppins and Chris Geidner, as well as author Kate Harding, outlines why this conversation ran deep: 

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For its part, The Onion has been otherwise pretty quiet on Twitter and on Facebook today.

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