A publication devoted to satire and comedy might not be the first place you’d think to turn to during a national tragedy, but in the last week, as the country has watched the Boston Marathon terror plot develop, The Onion has been—dare we say it?—killing it.
Bouncing back from their Oscar-night debacle in which they called 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis the C word on Twitter, The Onion has returned to form—sharpening its satirical knives to cut through the confusing morass of despair and disinformation during the Boston bombing’s aftermath.
On Thursday—and this was before the all-night standoff in Watertown, Massachusetts, later that night—the website posted a story that seemed to express what everyone seemed to be thinking.
The headline? “Jesus, This Week.”
The story acutely expounded on that sentiment. “This fucking week, sources added. Christ.”
Most people couldn’t have said it better themselves—especially after a week that not only included the bombings, but saw a popular gun-control bill getting shot down in Congress, causing The Onion to ruefully note—over a picture of glum-looking teenagers—“Next Week’s School Shooting Victims Thank Senate for Failing to Pass Gun Bill.”
The paper was on-the-nose in other respects, too, but perhaps its most scathing commentary was reserved for the media in general, the New York Post in particular.
As events were unfolding Monday, the New York City tabloid posted details to its website and on Twitter that proved to be dangerously, wildly wrong. If one were to believe the Post, a Saudi man was a suspect, and as many as 12 people were reportedly dead.
That was quickly determined to be false—and as far as anyone could tell, no heads rolled, and there was no mea culpa from the paper itself, even when it was later revealed that the Saudi man police were questioning was actually someone who had witnessed the explosion and was among the injured.
In a piece “written” by Post editor Col Allan, titled “This Is a Tragedy—Does It Really Matter How Many People Died or What Any of the Details Are?” the site skewered the tabloid’s mishandling of the news: “We were doing what needed to be done: dashing off haphazard, poorly sourced yellow journalism that included an entirely speculative report on a Saudi national who we strongly suggested was behind the attack without a modicum of supportive evidence.”
Fake Col Allan wrote: “It was the right thing to do, and I’d do it again.”
And two days later, real Col Allan complied. On Thursday the paper ran a cover that featured two men who were supposedly suspects, who turned out to be totally innocent bystanders. Cue spanking from Rachel Maddow.
The New York Post wasn’t the only organization subject to The Onion’s withering glare: the FBI, local law enforcement, and other media were taken to task, too. The FBI’s presser on Thursday showing the two suspects, who were then unidentified, also got a ribbing: “FBI: ‘You Know You’re Desperate When You’re Asking the American People for Help,” and the paper also published a list of tips for finding a suspected terrorist, one of which cut to the core of the prejudiced expectations many Americans hold about terrorists post-9/11: “Is your suspect an Arab? If not, you just have to start again. Yes, it’s frustrating, but you just have to.”
On Tuesday, a full day after the bombing, when there didn’t seem to be a lead in sight, the paper ran a piece perfectly echoing the impatience and frustration many Americans were feeling that mocked law enforcement’s lack of information: “Authorities: Sadly, There Are Many People Who Could Have Done This.”
Elsewhere, the paper turned its sights on the problems with crowdsourced policing, letting two worst-case scenarios play out in fake news stories. In one setup, the police poll Twitter users on whether they should pull the trigger on a subject in their line of fire; in another story, the paper issued an apology to a family because they shot him based on false information, a scary foreshadowing of what could have happened to the many people who were misidentified by various news outlets as suspects throughout the week, with the help of real-life crowdsourced policing.
That kind of satire is particularly shrewd especially when you consider CNN’s debacle Wednesday, reporting that an arrest had been made, or the entire mainstream media’s incorrect reporting of the suspects’ names Thursday night.
On Friday the site further ridiculed CNN with a fake report titled “CNN Releases Photos of 3 Obese Women Suspected in Boston Bombing.”
The Onion’s best response to the entire media mess, though, was simple and to the point: “BREAKING: We’re Doing a Bad Job.”
That the publication is so good this week isn’t surprising. The Onion’s finest moments have often been during national tragedies and political upheaval. Remember the cover after the 2000 election was finally decided in favor of George W. Bush? “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over,” was thigh-slappingly hilarious, until it turned out to be eerily prescient and, later, deeply unfunny—especially after those two wars and major recession became a reality.
During the September 11 attacks, when most people were afraid to tackle the worst terrorist strike on U.S. soil, the website navigated the uneasy waters with grace. One cover story nailed the fear surrounding having an unknowable enemy and constantly moving target—a terrorist organization without a nation: “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With,” read the headline. Another brilliantly lampooned American culture in the same breath as it acknowledged death and destruction: “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.”
This week, in a piece that mirrored the 9/11 era, headlined “This What World Like Now,” the paper built an entire tragicomic story around a fact—Americans living in fear because of potential terrorist attacks have become routine—and managed to make it both poignant and darkly funny.
The piece quoted a fake President Obama, who spoke a basic truth: “The days when we could walk outside and feel completely safe and secure are over. People die going to school now. They die going to the movies. And they die because, in this world, it’s more likely than not that some madman out there is hell-bent on instilling fear in others and destroying the lives of innocent people.”
The story was accompanied by a real photo taken just after the bomb had gone off, as runners and spectators fled the utterly chaotic scene.
As the Boston tragedy continues to unfurl, things will likely continue to get worse before finally taking a turn for the better. But Americans will have The Onion’s humor to turn to in times of duress to let off a little stress. The New York Times might have recently won four Pulitzers, but this week, The Onion really was America’s finest news source.