Say Wha?

The Onion Has Never Shied From Insult or the C-Word, So Why Say Sorry Now?

The satirical weekly has spoofed mass shootings and pedophiles. So why say sorry for calling a 9-year-old actress the c-word? David Freedlander on the Onion’s about-face.

02.25.13 8:09 PM ET

Callers to The Onion’s office in Chicago are greeted with the usual automated rundown—Press 1 for an automated phone directory, 5 for accounts payable, 7 for technical problems, etc.—except that at the end of the message, the calm, deadpan voice on the answering service says, “For content concerns, please refer to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. For content correction, please note that we do not make mistakes.”

Callers are then given an email address to contact “if you feel like ranting.”

But today the Onion acknowledged that, contra company policy, they did make a mistake, a big one, when the satirical news weekly called Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old star of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild a “cunt” in a tweet.

The tweet brought a storm of outrage and was quickly deleted. Today, the much loved newspaper published an apology on its Facebook page.

“I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting,” wrote Onion CEO Steve Hannah. “No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.”

But the incident brought a torrent of opprobrium online and overshadowed much of the day after Oscar coverage which otherwise would be devoted to Seth McFarlane’s middling hosting performance and the surprising showing of the Ben Affleck film Argo.

Hannah went on to say that the site was taking immediate steps to “discipline those individuals responsible” although he declined to say who or how.  An email message to Hannah was not returned, nor was one to Onion editor Will Tracy. A phone operator at the newspaper’s Chicago offices said “Unfortunately we can’t—there is no real direct line to them right now,” when asked to be put through to either Tracy or Hannah.

But left unsaid in the controversy was what the exact line was that The Onion believed they had crossed. It was not the C-word itself, since the site has used it dozens of times over the years, from a story titled “Foster Mom A Cunt” to “New Congressional Bill Actually Just A List Of Reasons Why Joe Lieberman Is A Stupid Fucking Cunt” to “Replacement Socialite Cunt Sought For Simple Life Cast.” Was it that the insult was directed at child, including one who was among the feel-good stories of otherwise dismal season?

If so, then The Onion will have to start scrubbing its website further, beginning with the op-ed by Penn State serial child molester entitled, “They Can Never Take Away My Memories,” and a satiric service-y piece titled, “How To Protect Your Children On Halloween, A.K.A. The Pedophiles' Christmas.”

This is not the first time the satirical news site has gotten into trouble over its Twitter account. In 2011 the site posted an article spoofing the increasing number of up-to-the-deadline crises Congress and the White House had been engaged in with the headline, “Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage,” featuring a doctored photo of House Speaker John Boehner holding a pistol to a little girl's head. The site promoted the article by live-tweeting the hostage showdown, including posts like “Two chaperones are also being held, one of whom is said to be pregnant #CongressHostage,” and “Obama: ‘I know this Congress well. Trust me, they will kill these kids.’ #CongressHostage.”

The article forced the Capitol Police to respond that the tweets were meant as merely as joke.

The latest c-word controversy comes as The Onion has been particularly sharp in its political and cultural coverage. It has even been able to make the spate of recent mass shootings funny without going over the line, as when the site published an article about people from around the country pouring into the streets in celebration to mark a full week without such an outbreak of violence. After there was a much publicized shooting at the Empire State Building, The Onion updated its story: “Federal officials have reportedly just informed celebrating Americans that a mass shooting did in fact just happen in front of the Empire State Building, and that citizens should stop chanting and cheering now. ‘Oh,’ Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said, looking at what appeared to be a news alert on her cell phone. ‘You know what, forget it. There was another one about 20 blocks from here. So, party’s over. Sorry.’ Napolitano then urged the visibly saddened Americans to be careful, get back home as soon as possible, lock all their doors, and never leave their homes unless it is absolutely essential.” 

Also left unclear is where The Onion will go from here. As of today, the apology is taking up a coveted slot high on its webpage, apparently the first time The Onion has ever done such a thing. The letter is next to another post about Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow stunning the Oscar night’s red carpet by wearing “the blood-soaked rags Osama bin Laden was killed in,” and another about a somber moment at last night’s ceremony when the coffins of dead film industry stalwarts were wheeled into to the Oscar ceremony during the “In Memoriam” portion of the show.

A representative for Wallis declined to comment.