After The Onion’s Oscars debacle, its tiny rival proved just as good at faking out major news outlets. Is satire’s scrappy step-sibling finally ready for primetime? By David Freedlander.
Did you hear the story about Sarah Palin becoming an Al Jazeera contributor? Or about former Senate candidate Todd Akin suggesting that breast milk can cure homosexuality? Or maybe you saw the story about how Rick Santorum has an app for the gay hook-up site Grindr on his iPhone, thinking it was devoted to finding freshly brewed coffee?
None of those stories are real, but they were passed around on the Internet as if they were. In some cases, they wound up on the websites of major news outlets which reported them as fact, as was the case with The Washington Post, which fell for the Palin prank.
Instead, they were the brainchild of Daniel Barkeley, a 28-year-old business school graduate who churned them out for The Daily Currant, a satirical website he founded last year that he describes as a cross between The Onion and The Daily Show.
Barkeley snared another mark Monday morning when the website for the Boston Globe and the right-wing outfit Breitbart.com ran a story about liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman declaring personal bankruptcy.
“Between 2004 and 2007 Krugman splurged on expensive cars, clothes, and travel in hopes that the new lifestyle would convince his bosses at the New York Times to give him a giant raise,” Barkeley wrote, piping in a couple of fake quotes. "They say always dress for the job you want,” the fictitious Krugman said. “So I thought maybe if I showed up in $70,000 Alexander Amosu suits they would give me ownership of part of the company. If I had only been granted a sliver of the New York Times Co., I could have paid everything back.” Another bogus zinger: "I still defend my analysis that on the macroeconomic level sovereign debt crises can be fixed by increasing government borrowing to lift aggregate demand. I admit, however, that on the microeconomic level this strategy has failed spectacularly."
On the phone from his home in Dearborn, Mich., Barkeley explained the philosophy behind the gag—and how he distinguishes his site from its more popular rival.
“We want to be relevant. We want to be socially relevant and we want to be grounded in reality. So we do a lot of articles about women’s rights, a lot of articles about politics, things that we think are important and happening in the world. We stay away from the silly stuff. The Onion does a lot of silly stuff about a day in the life of this person or whatever. We don’t want to do that. Every story we write we want to have a point.”
The “we” here is a tad royal—for now, the site is just Barkeley and an occasional freelancer. Still, Barkeley says it pulls down $2,500 a month in ad sales, and he wants to expand and add video content.
Barkeley came up with the idea for The Daily Currant after a few other career tracks failed to pan out. A University of Oregon graduate, he decamped for Los Angeles hours after his commencement ceremony and tried to stick on as a comedy writer somewhere. When that went nowhere, the political science major worked at a law firm for a bit before heading to business school in Lille, France.
His thesis—rather lame for business school, he admits—ended up being a business model for the future website. “Most of my classmates had ideas for the next Google or Facebook or whatever. And I came in with an idea for a blog. They weren’t too impressed.”
After graduation, he devoted himself to the site full time.
Barkeley says his favorite posts were the one about George W. Bush mistakenly voting for Barack Obama—he was confused by the electronic voting machine—and the one about Tea Party congresswoman Michele Bachmann attempting to ban falafel from school lunches, calling it a “gateway food” to radical Islam.
"It starts with falafel, then the kids move on to shawarma. After a while they say, ‘Hey this tastes good, I wonder what else comes from Arabia?'" Barkeley as Bachmann said. "Before you know it our children are listening to Muslim music, reading the Koran, and plotting attacks against the homeland."
Chuckles aside, there is an earnestness to The Daily Currant that won’t be found in The Onion or other kinds of comedy. “Part of satire is shaming,” Barkeley said in the interview. “That’s how it works. And Michele Bachmann deserved to be shamed.”
When it first began, Barkeley included a link at the end of stories that encouraged people to get involved in the issue; so, for example, a story about Saudi Arabia considering allowing women to use forks would include a link to a women’s-rights organization in the country. He abandoned the effort when few of his readers followed through with it.
In a statement, Ellen Clegg, a spokeswoman for the Boston Globe, pointed out that the Krugman story didn’t arrive on their website through their own reporters but through an organization with which it has a partnership.
“The post about Paul Krugman was an automatic feed on a partner website, FinancialContent.com, which Boston.com uses to provide stock and other financial data. The story did not originate with the Boston Globe or Boston.com, and we worked to get it taken down as soon as we heard about it from readers. We have asked FinancialContent.com to provide us with more information as to how this story was added into their financial news feed.”
Nor was The Washington Post’s stumble the work of a staffer, but rather an Arkansas-based “contributor” to its “She the People” blog.
Barkeley, who hoped the name would sound real when he started the site, said he feels for the real-life journalists who keep getting fooled.
Professional journalism is kind of in decline,” he said. “And that is sad—it is. Journalists are not as well paid as they used to be, they work more now than they used to, they have to write blogs and their own stories, and they don’t have the same job security so they make more mistakes. It’s totally understandable. The editing process isn’t as real as it used to be and then there is the 24-hour nature of the news cycle. So it’s just the world we live in.”