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"If the news goes down too easily, it can't be good for you."
October 20, 2007 12:58 AM   Subscribe

Amusing Ourselves to Depth: Is The Onion our most intelligent newspaper?: "While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion’s journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful." The article is based on the premises of the late media critic Neil Postman, especially from his book "Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business."
posted by amyms (47 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting point the guy makes, but I didn't see how it was based on Neil Postman premises. Postman only gets a mention in the description of how all media outlets are scrambling to entertain and failing to hold our attenion.

The Onion is in the business of calling bullshit, and does so with acute satire. This is of course more successful than a newspaper that prints partisan bullshit uncritically, tries to remedy this by mentioning the opposing partisan points uncritically, and then tries to hold our attention to this nonsense with increasingly shallow gimicks. So it's not so much the Onion that exemplifies Postman's thesis as it is the continuing degeneration of all other news outlets.
posted by creasy boy at 1:34 AM on October 20, 2007 [7 favorites]


In other news: Passersby were amazed by the unusually large amounts of blood.
posted by Kinbote at 2:30 AM on October 20, 2007


The Onion also doesn't require its readers to register and log in.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:00 AM on October 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


Extremely well said, creasy boy.
posted by dreamsign at 3:21 AM on October 20, 2007


one of my big issues with a lot of media outlets is the way divisive issues are presented - one of the best examples is scientific news, ie, new rant by a creationist gets headline, and the way to be "fair and balanced" is to give equal time and space to both viewpoints, regardless of which one features near unanimious agreement among the scientific community. Often no disclaimers are given when a minority or extremist viewpoint is presented in exactly the same way as a mainstream view. Few journalists seem to have a good enough understanding of the social process of science, ie, Falsification theory - and think that, to use the same example, "evolution hasn't been proven yet!" is enough justification to present an "alternate view"

it's hamhanded, obvious, does nothing to raise the level of public discourse or knowledge, and is generally painful to read.

often the same philosophy of presenting viewpoints flows over into politics - except that the strategy is report views in as much as they are considered PC, and occasionally present un-PC views in a sort of reverse-publicitiy attention getting grab-bag. it's, again, painful to read.

well, i like the idea of the article. it could certainly be argued the "the onion" is one of the few journalisticly "pure" newspapers left in the US, but I don't have the mettle to attempt to argue it.

i went to check out the onion while i was at it, and highly recommend a few vids from their site;
Gays in the Military
Domestic Abuse down to Zero
Should the government do more to monitor paranoid schizophrenics?

My one problem with the onion, that the entire joke is usually contained in the headline, seems to be something that's faded some what. good on em.

thanks for the link!
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:14 AM on October 20, 2007


A part of the problem, for me, has been the newsmedia's endless parade of "What Do You Think?"s --- the slew of worthless interactive content, the endless ratings, and, dear God, the comments, the comments on fucking everything.

It's the comments that get to me, really; I guess they were maybe originally some hamfisted attempt at being democratic (or at least relevant), but they just turn even the most serious subjects into mere entertainment for a certain kind of person who may not know too much about a subject, but now has the ability to argue passionately about it.

I'm not even talking about the worst comments -- cavemen shit on YouTube that reads like a very elemental attempt at communcation --- but just the average, grammatically-correct and thoroughly uninsightful comments that comprise about 90% of everything posted on the Internet. If you exclude the absolute worst of the worst, the ideas in most Internet debates read like the kind of thing you'd come up if you were drunkenly and passionately arguing about a topic you didn't know anything about.

There's nothing really wrong with it, you know, it's just shooting the shit and we all do it, but now it's not really just shooting the shit. It's being published and legimitized, and this middle of the road, well-meaning but ill-informed drivel is pretty much setting the tone of the debate. If you want to see what I'm talking about, look at the comments on the Onion AV Club. They are not terrible. They are all competently written and usually about the matter on hand, and almost never show any new understanding or insight into the matter --- just hundreds of pages of "Yeah, I love 'Atlantic City', it's a beautiful song...haven't bought the album, tho." And this is the kind of discussion that modern day news media are apparently desperate to promote.

So that's how I feel, every time I see a "Rate this Article! Visit our website to comment on this Article! See what Articles People are Discussing On-line! What Do You Think?" slapped onto some otherwise completely un-interactive piece of journalism.

What Do You Think? Who cares what you think? Who the fuck are you?

P.S. don't really get irony (sp?) so don't kno if my comment is unintentionally ironic or not! The onion is awesome, tho.


P.P.S. Also, now that I have your attention, I want to point this out, because I saw it for the first time, and I'm not ashamed to say I cried: Skullfucking.
posted by Tiresias at 4:28 AM on October 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


This is a good place to point to Ben Goldacre's Ten Pieces of Advice for Old Media. His list strikes me as pretty sensible, above all his idea that, since the online paper doesn't have the space restrictions of print, they should link to fuckloads of sources and put up all kinds of interviews with experts, unedited, rather than just presenting shallow opinion. Maybe then it would turn out that we don't all lack the attention span for news, we just lack the attention span for the shit they've been producing for years now.

Dillonlikescookies, you're on to a huge problem, and I have another example: McCain says the constitution establishes America as a Christian nation. OK, that's newsworthy. But you know what else is newsworthy? The fact that he's wrong about this. This is somethinng you can look up. Not every schmuck who just got home from work and has kids to look after has the wherewithall to go read through the constitution and fact-check McCain's claim, so one would think this is what we pay journalists for: to have some intern give the constitution a quick read-through (it's not very long) and, you know, investigate McCain's claim and report on it. Maybe that would hold our attention.
posted by creasy boy at 4:45 AM on October 20, 2007 [6 favorites]


One of the things I recall in the furore over that interview Bush took in Ireland a while back was feeling that maybe that said something about different news cultures transatlantic. It has its critics, but I like the BBC et al view that if you get a figureheard/spokesperson type in, the interviewer's job is to put the hard questions to them.
So in creasy boy's example above, McCain would get a grilling using the statements of constitutional scholars. Someone of the opposite view would be presented with the arguments refuting their case. We the listeners/viewers see how well the interviewee holds up under pressure. It's been called rude and hectoring, but I think that's the basic model. It's also noticeable that the better outlets go far easier on non-professional politicians etc, like citizen activists, and don't hold them to the same standard.
posted by Abiezer at 5:12 AM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Onion is a parody -- a fake -- so it has to get the form -- in its most traditional version -- exactly right. Open forums about whether " It Only Tuesday " would make the whole thing a confusing mess. "Weekend Update" doesn't have an ombudsman or viewer feedback either -- what would be the point.

Plus, the Onion does parody the more airheaded, touch-feely parts of the newspapers. It has a "man on the street" section. And the Onion TV News had a "Viewer Voices" section. And things like "Statshots" and "Infographics" have nailed USA-TODAY-level crap for years.

I think a better illustration would be The Daily Show, a "fake" news program, that does a better job of presenting and analyzing real news than, say, Katie Couric does. It's also not a straight parody, although it does have many elements of one.
posted by PlusDistance at 5:25 AM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'll always remember the post-9/11 guide on talking to your children about the attacks as one of the few places to get actual context on what was happening. And of course our long national nightmare continues every day.
posted by ao4047 at 6:01 AM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


the way divisive issues are presented - one of the best examples is scientific news, ie, new rant by a creationist gets headline, and the way to be "fair and balanced" is to give equal time and space to both viewpoints, regardless of which one features near unanimious agreement among the scientific community

There's that, and then there's completely one-sided reporting with an agenda, a la the National Post in Canada and your local right wing versions elsewhere I'm sure.

Thing is, when the Onion makes no bones about an issue, their politics almost always match mine, so I see it as, well, rational.

The pandering that Tiresias is talking about is another thing altogether. And I argue that it is worse than the average MeFi or, lord help me, Fark debate, because people who write to the print media (including web versions thereof) seem to have the absolute lowest respect for a rational argument. They're not used to having to provide better or see it shot down 2 minutes later in some forum. I really can't believe most of the drivel I see in the comments sections of the paper.

Not every schmuck who just got home from work and has kids to look after has the wherewithall to go read through the constitution and fact-check McCain's claim, so one would think this is what we pay journalists for: to have some intern give the constitution a quick read-through (it's not very long) and, you know, investigate McCain's claim and report on it.

This reminds me of a cute comment in the Comcast-bashing thread, about how it was "noted" that Comcast has so-and-so many satisfied customers, when really that should read Comcast "claims" or the like. Cute but rather important, and sadly lacking in most reporting. It's as if it doesn't even occur to anyone that they should do otherwise than take a statement at its word.
posted by dreamsign at 6:04 AM on October 20, 2007


How can anyone trust MSM in the U.S. after virtually every major newspaper and television news outlet rolled over for the Bush Administration during the build-up to the Iraq War? Either you now cynically dismiss every word coming out of reporters' mouths and pens, or you accept everything they say at face value. And that's how all related discourse, parody or otherwise, devolves into he-said-she-said partisanship of the Defeatocrat-versus-Freeper variety.

The United States used to be such a great country. Living next door over the past seven years has been like watching a good neighbour slowly go insane.

(sorry 'bout the thread-jack, but still...)
posted by spoobnooble at 6:35 AM on October 20, 2007


What Do You Think? Who cares what you think? Who the fuck are you?
P.S. don't really get irony (sp?) so don't kno if my comment is unintentionally ironic or not!


Yes, yes it is.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:42 AM on October 20, 2007


i was going to read the first article, then I tried the google thing and just started reading the onion.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:43 AM on October 20, 2007


My only complaint is the Onion Personal of the Day... it gets kind of old constantly having a "hot" 25-year old hipster-fashioned lady du jour staring out of the front page.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:01 AM on October 20, 2007


Oh, and I'm pissed that they killed off Herbert Kornfeld. He was one of the main reasons I went to the Onion site, I have to admit.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:02 AM on October 20, 2007


My favorite Onion story: Roof on Fire Claims Lives of 43 Party People.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:17 AM on October 20, 2007


It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five

But the AV Club does, and boy, are those comments bad (the first commenter always must type 'first!'). What's worse, the writers often respond to AV Club comments, usually regarding errors or spelling mistakes.

The Onion is irrelevent, because few people read all of it. The Onion really leads people to the AV Club, which is good, but still has all of the challenges of a regular media property.

Also, the Slate/CNN/Onion hookup is interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:52 AM on October 20, 2007


EVERYBODY in this thread is right. (coo!)

It is worse than the average MeFi or, lord help me, Fark debate, because people who write to the print media (including web versions thereof) seem to have the absolute lowest respect for a rational argument. They're not used to having to provide better or see it shot down 2 minutes later in some forum.

This is especially right. There's a paper here where, on the letters page, they've spent the last 8 days arguing over the existence of God. And the standard is stuff that would get laughed out of MeFi. The watch analogy. "I believe in infinity, even though I don't understand it, ergo an infinite God exists". "Can science prove the existence of morals? But they are fundamentally true, just like God".

Who cares what you think? Only proprietors searching for a way to keep you returning to their loss-making websites, in the hope that some decade soon people will be habituated to websites just as they are to their choice of paper, and the money will start coming in.
posted by bonaldi at 8:32 AM on October 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


The number one issues among voters is bullshit.

(video)
posted by washburn at 8:35 AM on October 20, 2007


I think Postman was mentioned because the author woke up one morning with the phrase "Amusing Ourselves to Depth" knocking around in his head and then went looking for some way to deploy it.
posted by psmith at 9:09 AM on October 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


The writers for The Onion are funny, no doubt about it.

A problem with satire is that it is, by its nature, self-referential. It seems to flourish in cultures that have reached their apex and are now on a downhill trajectory, because that culture cannot create any longer, and satire keeps feeding on works past.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:18 AM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


k thnkx aeschenkarnos! irony is tricky, isn't it!
posted by Tiresias at 9:23 AM on October 20, 2007


The entire world of western discourse is now surrounded in air quotes.
posted by srboisvert at 9:35 AM on October 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's the comments that get to me, really; I guess they were maybe originally some hamfisted attempt at being democratic (or at least relevant), but they just turn even the most serious subjects into mere entertainment for a certain kind of person who may not know too much about a subject, but now has the ability to argue passionately about it.

Most ironic MetaFilter comment EVAR.
posted by briank at 9:37 AM on October 20, 2007


The Onion has sucked for a long time. Or did it stop sucking at some point? I don't know how often you can read the "local man does something mundane" story.
posted by delmoi at 9:40 AM on October 20, 2007


I love the Onion, but I'm personally a little tired of the "ordinary event posing as major news story" joke. We get it already.
posted by fungible at 9:48 AM on October 20, 2007


Or what delmoi just said. Shit.
posted by fungible at 9:49 AM on October 20, 2007


Has anybody else noticed that The Onion is only funny every other week? It's like they have an alternating A and B list of writers. Or else it takes their brains two weeks to freshen up and come up with any good new material.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:50 AM on October 20, 2007


The entire world of western discourse is now surrounded in air quotes.
It really is, but that's far more the regular "serious" media's doing--by continuing deciding what's news according to GOP talkingpoints, blastfax, email and Drudge/Politico gossip and fauxtrage.

Related: Gawker's impact
posted by amberglow at 9:53 AM on October 20, 2007


Entire Precinct Made Up Of Loose Cannons

Wow. I forgot I'd clicked on that and began reading it as if it was real, until I realized it was awfully weird that all 34 of these detectives would have a "non-fatal shot to the left shoulder". LOL.
posted by Skygazer at 10:27 AM on October 20, 2007



About 8 years ago when I started teaching Freshmen Comp at a reputable university, I was shocked by how little students knew about current events. I started making them bring in news articles every week for discussion. One week a student began to talk about her article (I don't remember the exact article but it was something about George Bush) and I stopped her almost immediately. "What paper did you get that from?" "The Onion," she replied. It then came out that she and the entire class had no idea that the Onion wasn't a "real" newspaper.

I didn't know what was the most disturbing part about the entire encounter that they didn't know about the Onion, that they didn't realize upon reading that the Onion wasn't a "real" newspaper, or that America has become so ridiculous that satire isn't really possible anymore.
posted by miss-lapin at 10:28 AM on October 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


America has become so ridiculous that satire isn't really possible anymore.
I'd say what passes for news has certainly become so ridiculous.

very related-- Digby:
They All Do It

posted by amberglow at 10:35 AM on October 20, 2007


About 8 years ago when I started teaching Freshmen Comp at a reputable university, I was shocked by how little students knew about current events. I started making them bring in news articles every week for discussion.

Oh, you're THAT teacher. Please stop doing that, it's an assignment every student has done at least once a year since 1st grade.

The ones who don't care still won't care after cutting out the first article they see five minutes before class.

Everyone is well aware of current events that have relevance to their lives, I'm a news junky, but there is almost no worthwhile knowledge it gives me.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:50 AM on October 20, 2007


Well thanks, furiousxgeorge, for the constructive criticism. I did, actually stop using that assignment. (Just a little before I stopped teaching Freshmen Comp.) All I'll say about it is I had lots of reasons for assigning it, but it isn't relevant so I won't go into it.

But while I'm being THAT teacher, I might as well point out that there are very few things that "everyone" knows or believes. You might want to look into qualifying that statement just a hair.

I rarely comment on metafilter and prefer to lurk. Once every few years I decide to post a comment and then immediately remember why I am lurker. (Dons cloacking device.)
posted by miss-lapin at 12:56 PM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why are gardening sections and recipes a bad thing? Newspapers are supposed to provide a medley information, in addition to regular coverage.
posted by Yakuman at 1:12 PM on October 20, 2007


I think The Onion has found it's footing again and is better than ever. Especially the A.V. Club.

I know that I was completely in awe when The Onion predicted the future. (check the byline dates).
posted by ninjew at 1:19 PM on October 20, 2007


Hehe, sorry miss-lapin. That was rage at 20 other teachers who made me cut out newspaper articles, not you.

that there are very few things that "everyone" knows or believes

People tend to know what they need to know to get through the day.

"Current events" tend to have no actual impact on the lives of most people. Ignoring the news is a very valid way to go through life, it saves you a lot of impotent rage at politicans and lets you focus on your friends and family instead.

Did you know the Chinese state media has been tricked by The Onion? Trust me, they DO follow current events. It isn't the end of the world if someone is fooled by an onion article, if they were not close to the truth they would not be good satire.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:06 PM on October 20, 2007


"Current events" tend to have no actual impact on the lives of most people.
That's actually completely untrue--now more than ever-- and especially financially. From local budget decisions to national funding of services, etc to banking and finance news, it affects everyone. Local and national news about the essential service providers and our shared infrastructure and education system affect all also. Everything from your commute to work to your profession and/or job to your future plans (and any kids you might have, etc) are affected by things in the news today and everyday.

We're all impacted in multiple tangible ways--unless you live entirely off the grid and never use any roads, internet, banks, etc.

I'd point out all the recent and enormous relevations about completely unsafe food and products in the news as just one thing that affects us all.
posted by amberglow at 2:29 PM on October 20, 2007


As I said, Amberglow, people tend to be aware of the issues they need to be. Unsafe food? Sure.

The latest from Iraq or on the SCHIP bill? You are no better off if you are enraged about it than if you are ignorant, you aren't going to change anything. Those are the type of 'current events' I'm talking about.

That said, my main point was that the stupid cut out an article assignment isn't going to suddenly make someone care.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:47 PM on October 20, 2007


Ignoring the news is a very valid way to go through life, it saves you a lot of impotent rage at politicans and lets you focus on your friends and family instead.

I stopped my newspaper subscription for just this reason. Seriously. Nearly every time I read the paper I'd get really mad about something, often something involving our loathesome Mayor Daley. And since there's not much I could do about it that I hadn't already done (vote, write letters) I decided I would rather just spare myself the aggravation and not know.
posted by Jess the Mess at 3:06 PM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I didn't catch it at first, but when I did, this was my favorite line from the linked article (wikipedia references added by me):

only industry mavericks like The New York Times’ Jayson Blair and USA Today’s Jack Kelley have looked to The Onion for inspiration.

Perfect deadpan!
posted by moonmilk at 4:28 PM on October 20, 2007


related, esp in terms of foreign news (and also impact, and impact not reported): ...Dana Priest was asked, on one of those discussions on the Washington Post, why reporters did not concentrate on Saudi Arabia's contribution to the insurgents in Iraq the way they did on Iran ...
posted by amberglow at 4:54 PM on October 20, 2007


and then there's completely one-sided reporting with an agenda, a la the National Post in Canada and your local right wing versions elsewhere I'm sure.

The Post hasn't been right-wing for a loooong time, since Conrad Black sold the paper. Pretty centrist, IMHO.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:55 PM on October 20, 2007


I love The Onion; I miss the first few years of The Lampoon.

I also love Neil Postman and think he should be required reading for people who live in a cult. I mean culture. Like ours.
posted by kozad at 6:13 PM on October 20, 2007


Metafilter: I guess they were maybe originally some hamfisted attempt at being democratic (or at least relevant), but they just turn even the most serious subjects into mere entertainment for a certain kind of person who may not know too much about a subject, but now has the ability to argue passionately about it.
posted by Balisong at 7:09 PM on October 20, 2007


This is a good place to point to Ben Goldacre's Ten Pieces of Advice for Old Media. His list strikes me as pretty sensible, above all his idea that, since the online paper doesn't have the space restrictions of print, they should link to fuckloads of sources and put up all kinds of interviews with experts, unedited, rather than just presenting shallow opinion. Maybe then it would turn out that we don't all lack the attention span for news, we just lack the attention span for the shit they've been producing for years now.

Sure, what you're suggesting would be great. Unfortunately, though, it would require "reporters" for these papers to actually have this type of background information before they write the article. As it is, most articles are written from a core of maybe one or two things that the reporter heard, and are rarely backed up by any kind of evidence aside from "an unnamed government source."

If they had the information that you talk about above, the articles would likely be better, as would the paper.
posted by odinsdream at 8:01 AM on October 21, 2007


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