Reading The Onion Seriously

Combining irreverent humor and acerbic critique, a handful of new media outlets -- including The Onion -- are transforming American politics and culture, writes Theodoe Hamm, in his new book The New Blue Media.

Theodore Hamm

After 911, The Onion stopped its presses for one week. The hiatus allowed the paper to show its respect for the gravity of what had happened in lower Manhattan. But it also enabled its staff to come up with the paper’s quite poignant reaction to the terrorist strikes. It was announced by a large banner headline that read, Holy Fucking Shit – Attack on America.” The statement perfectly captured the confusion and fear of the moment.The paper’s lead story, U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With,” accurately recorded the Bush administration’s immediate and enduring response to 911. To America’s enemy, be it Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, a multinational coalition of terrorist organizations, any of a rogue’s gallery of violent Islamic fringe groups, or an entirely different, non-Islamic aggressor we’ve never even heard of,” Bush vowed, be warned.” A pair of news briefs in that same issue reported, American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and Hijackers Find Themselves in Hell” instead of the Paradise” they had expected. 

As its new home city (the paper moved its headquarters from Madison to New York City months earlier) and the nation tried to make sense of the attacks, The Onions 911 issue uniquely encompassed a wide range of popular sentiments. We really were just trying to capture the sadness and anger everyone was feeling, and somehow it came out as humor,” Robert Siegel, then The Onions editor-in-chief, recalled a year later.

The End of Satire?

Ironically, perhaps, the most powerful statement The Onion made in that landmark issue was not about terrorism or the likelihood of the Bush administration’s overreaction to it, but instead about the future of irony itself. That week in Time, Roger Rosenblatt’s column carried the ominous title The Age of Irony Comes to an End,” with an equally foreboding subheading of No Longer Will We Fail to Take Things Seriously.” As Ground Zero smoldered, Rosenblatt searched for both blame and a sign of hope. He wrote, For some 30 years – roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright – the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.” It was irony, Rosenblatt suggested, that somehow had blinded us to the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism. 

Such an overwrought notion was blown apart by a range of critics, comic and otherwise. For its part, an Onion news brief announced, Report: Gen X Irony, Cynicism May Be Permanently Obsolete.” In the item, a Gen X‑er states, Remember the day after the attack, when all the senators were singing God Bless America,’ arm-in-arm?’ asked Dave Holt, 29.’Normally, I’d make some sarcastic wisecrack about something like that. But this time, I was deeply moved.’ Added Holt: This earnestness can’t last forever. Can it?’”

Both the news brief and the entire 911 issue vividly illustrated The Onions answer to Holt’s question, as did its lead story in the next issue, Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” Looking back one year later, Siegel explained to Alternet’s Daniel Kurtzman that irony would survive well into the twenty-first century. Many things about America changed, but you can’t kill humor….Obviously people are going to laugh and people will still be sarcastic and snide and ironic and winking and insincere. That’s a good thing. That’s a sign of the return to normalcy.”

Gulf War II: The Vengeance’

Unfortunately, for the Bush administration normalcy” soon meant outright deception, scare tactics, and bullying in the service of its primary goal of invading Iraq. The Onion, as usual, saw right through the jingo. In March 2002, when talk of taking down Saddam was in the air but nearly six months away from becoming an official plan, one of the paper’s headlines read, Military Promises Huge Numbers’ for Gulf War II: The Vengeance.” The lead photo for the article showed Donald Rumsfeld giving a typical chesty gesture at a press conference in front of a Photoshopped movie poster of Gulf War II: The Vengeance, starring W. and Saddam. The other photo in the piece was even more prophetic, as it featured W. in full military gear, carrying an automatic weapon and hunting down rebel forces. The image smacked more of Rambo than the Top Gun – style Mission Accomplished” scene that W. eventually chose, but the prediction was accurate enough. 

According to the article, the PR blitz for Gulf War II also included a pact with Topps for a series of trading cards; a first-look deal with CNN, guaranteeing the network full access to the front lines, as well as first crack at interviewing the men and women behind the scenes”; and a two-cry deal” with Dan Rather. Late that summer, then – White House chief of staff Andrew Card famously stated that the administration was waiting until after Labor Day to unveil its full plan for Iraq because you don’t introduce a new product in August.” Six months prior, The Onion had already sketched out the marketing plan for that dangerous new product.” 

As the White House made its sales pitch for war, the lead article in The Onions issue in the second week after Labor Day – dated September 11, 2002 – declared, Bush Won’t Stop Asking Cheney If We Can Invade Yet.” In this case, the story worked a father-versus-impatient-son storyline, and so focused less on details of the Iraq question than on Cheney’s control over W. At one point, however, the piece did report that Cheney sat Bush down and explained at length the political ramifications of proceeding with a first strike without creating the appearance of approval from Congress and the American people.” It continued by quoting Cheney’s advice to Bush: If we just wait a little longer, Saddam is bound to commit some act of aggression or we’ll find some juicy al Qaeda ties or something, and then we can make it look like the whole country’s behind it.” 

Here again the satire was right on target. Over the next month, in order to help force Congress into granting the administration the authority to go to war – a vote that would haunt many leading Democrats through both 2004 and 2008 – both Cheney and Bush stressed Saddam’s alleged ties to al Qaeda. Such outright distortions helped propel the Republicans’ success in the upcoming midterms as well as in 2004, and their game plan almost seemed lifted directly from the pages of a satirical publication. While serious liberal news organizations such as the New York Times helped disseminate the White House’s specious rationale for war, The Onions lampoons turned out to be far more accurate. The Bush gang, the paper said, was hell-bent on invading Iraq, and it would deploy any means necessary in order to do so. 

Throughout the fall campaign, The Onion continued to see right through Bush’s bluster. For example, the paper’s lead story in early October announced that Bush Seeks U.N. Support for U.S. Does Whatever It Wants Plan.’” As a shining beacon of freedom and democracy, America has inspired the world,” Bush told the UN General Assembly. In this spirit, I call upon the world’s nations to support my proposal to give America unrestricted carte blanche to remove whatever leaders, plunder whatever resources, and impose whatever policies it deems necessary or expedient.” Such aggressive unilateralism underpinned the rationale W. here gave the UN for overthrowing Saddam: The time has come for this man to step down, because we want him to.” Meanwhile, the question What should we do about Saddam’s WMD?” domi-nated mainstream media discussion. Based on a false premise, the question itself dictated the answer. It was a sophisticated level of deception, and given Saddam’s reputation, it was easy fodder for cable news chatter. 

A news brief reported,"Dead Iraqi Would Have Loved Democracy," which in just six words refuted most arguments for the war.

But for its part, The Onion generally steered clear of that question, and instead frequently pointed out how the war enabled Bush to shift the nation’s attention from other problems. In Bush on Economy: Saddam Must Be Overthrown,’” for example, the war solved problems ranging from a weak manufacturing sector to the ongoing corporate scandals, which at the time involved WorldCom and Enron. Similarly, W.’s answer to the problem of North Korea was, of course, to invade Iraq; later, he tried to help sell his tax cuts by offering another $300 on top of his initial tax rebate, provided that the United States went to war. Brushing aside the WMD issue, The Onion consistently put forth a satirical but convincing case that the United States was going to war simply because the Bush administration wanted it. 

When the war finally began in March 2003, the paper continued to mock both the Bush administration’s theatrics and its claims to an easy victory. One memorable lead story again foretold Bush’s Mission Accomplished” moment with remarkable accuracy. Beside a photo of W. leading an invading squad of soldiers through desert combat, the paper’s top story explained how Bush Bravely Leads 3rd Infantry into Battle.” In that same issue, a news brief reported,”Dead Iraqi Would Have Loved Democracy,” which in just six words refuted most arguments for the war. With notable foresight, the lead in the following week’s top story then stated,”Following a 12th consecutive day of fighting, a puzzled and frustrated President Bush confided to military advisors Monday that he really figured the war would be over by now.’” 

In that story, and in many others, Bush came across as juvenile and incompetent, a front man for Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the other neo-cons. In the fall of 2002, Beltway media mainstay Bob Woodward had, in Bush at War, legitimized the notion that W. really was in charge of his administration’s war plans; four years and two books later,Woodward’s analysis mirrored that found in The Onion.

The Onion Stays the Course

As the overthrow of Saddam became the occupation of Iraq, the paper stayed on the attack. It fired back at Bush shortly after he gave his spurious speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring victory; here was the Hollywood moment that the paper had sagely predicted, with Bush effectively combining two Tom Cruise films (Top Gun and Mission: Impossible).

But in The Onions account, instead of stating that the mission was over, the sign behind Bush read screw you, vets,”and the story detailed a ribbon-cutting ceremony at which Bush cut veterans benefits. The piece also featured what was by The Onion standards an unusually earnest photo, of a homeless African American vet dejectedly panhandling. Such sentimentality was short-lived, however, as the next week’s lead story returned to form: Gen. Tommy Franks Quits Army to Pursue Solo Bombing Projects.” The years I’ve spent with the Army have been amazing, and we did some fantastic bombing,” Franks stated. But at this point, I feel like I’ve taken it as far as I can. It’s time for me to move on and see what I can destroy on my own.”

Amid the chaotic aftermath of the invasion, many media observers, as well as Democratic Party officials, began to turn against the Bush administration, attacking its incompetent handling of the occupation. The Onion, however, continued its relentless assault on both the design and the execution of the war.

© 2008 by Theodore Hamm. This piece was adapted from Theodore Hamm’s The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn​.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics (The New Press). Published with the permission of The New Press and available now at good book stores everywhere.

Before you go

Reader donations, many as small as just $5, are what fund the work of writers like this—and keep our content free and accessible to everyone. But when donations slow down, it puts our future reporting at risk. To get back on track, we're aiming to add 400 contributions from readers by the end of the month.

It only takes a minute to donate. Will you chip in before the deadline?

Theodore Hamm is the founding editor of the Brooklyn Rail and an associate professor of urban studies at Metropolitan College of New York. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and Truthdig, among other publications.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue