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Why 'The Onion' Is Still the Only Site That Nails News Parody

A 'just OK' news parody site shouldn't be hard to make, but here we are.

by Michael Byrne
Sep 10 2014, 2:50pm

Image: Shutterstock.

Funny people exist. The evidence for this is all around: Nathan for You, Broad City, even Portlandia. Just listen to some episodes of Risk! and it quickly becomes clear that even a whole lot of just plain old normal people are funny. You probably interact personally with funny people on a daily basis. Hell, it's possible that even you are funny. It's not actually hard, being funny.

So we wind up with a sort of paradox when it comes to online news parody. There is The Onion, which is almost bizarre in its funny consistency, and there are the sites that are not The Onion, none of which are all that funny, though they exist to be funny. Supposedly. 

Why is it so hard to make a just OK news parody site anyway? The short answer: because no one is trying.

Take "The Borowitz Report." It isn't funny, although it is sanctioned by the  New Yorker, which employs some number of very smart people that you'd think would understand the difference between a thing saying that it's being funny and a thing actually being funny. Someone at the New Yorker, statistically, must be funny.

I've completely lost track of which news parody sites are which by now, to be honest. It seems like they come in waves, with the latest one crudding up my Facebook feed being "Empire News," which is tailored to look like a generic local news site. The most recent piece in question is  "Meteorologists Predict Record-Shattering Snowfall Coming Soon" and there's nothing really satirical at all about it. The story mostly just reads like a fake news story with "funny" names thrown in—like, "Edward F. Blankenbaker." 

A Facebook connection posted the above story with a "yay!" because they heart snow or whatever, and then a bunch of people commented on it like it was real. No one laughed, and several pointed out that it was fake. A few commenters continued to think it was real and respond as such. They probably still are. The post itself is currently touching 500 comments and what appears to be over a million shares. 

Nonetheless, the Daily Currant is still probably the classic shitty satire offender. In a piece last June, The New Republic listed a few highlights:

The Washington Post fell for a report that Sarah Palin was joining Al Jazeera America, Breitbart believed that Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy, and Drudge Report splashed an article claiming that a New York pizzeria owner, angry over the proposed ban on large sodas, had refused to serve Mayor Michael Bloomberg a second slice. The culprit this time wasn't The Onion, though. It was The Daily Currant ...

By "highlights" did you think I meant jokes? No, because none of these things are really about jokes—though, amusingly, the Daily Currant's boss-editor Daniel Barkley  professed to Slate, "That's the kind of comedy I like—it's made to look real. It's funnier that way, and we think it's more intelligent that way. So I guess a byproduct of that is that you end up with parodies that people think are true."

The going wisdom is that "news satire" is basically just a cover under which it's possible to make stuff up that people will click on and share. By the time it's busted as fake, the post will have moved on, infecting new social circles. It's tempting to liken the phenomenon to the Weekly World News end of the tabloid spectrum. But while not satire properly, that publication manages something else: fake non-joke news that is entertaining. That's the whole thing with fiction—creativity.

Just knowing a bit about what's going on in the real world is enough to build a filter that can handle 99.9 percent of fake news spam.

The fake news of the satirical web isn't even that because it's not supposed to be. Being funny or interesting means less chance of the reader picking up on the fakeness and not sharing with a "yay!" or ":(" or "WHAT THE FUCK I AM OUTRAGED" (which are all basically emoticons). Could-be-real headlines, often pandering in one way or another to some variety of stupid-politics, are clearly much bigger business than things that are actually funny or interesting or of any substance whatsoever, satirical or otherwise. 

As  TNR points out, satire is protected free speech and, so far, no one has sued the Daily Currant or its dull clones. Maybe that's part of the point of the dullness in the very first place. And it's not like there would be that much in ill-gotten riches to sue over anyhow; an SEO expert queried in the TNR piece above guessed that the Daily Currant pulls in about $150,000 a year. For one or two people, that'd be pretty good for just making things up. But it's still scraps in the grand scheme of making money from the internet. Maybe Barkley really does believe in his satire. How sad.

As for the "record shattering snow" report that's probably still propagating across the internet, no, this year, if any predication can be made at all, will more likely be warmer and drier in the Northeast, the result of a weak El Nino event unfolding in the Pacific. And for future reference, seasonal forecasts made with any sort of specificity (e.g. "a big storm is coming at the beginning at the end of October") are garbage, and any meteorologist caught making such a forecast should be treated as sketchy. 

Finally, do I need to say this? All of these sites— the list is long and always growing—exist only because people share them. And none of these sites are that clever really; just knowing a bit about what's going on in the real world is enough to build a filter that can handle 99.9 percent of fake news spam. If we can do that, and eviscerate this parasitic heap from the social media share-cycle with a bit of actual knowledge, maybe then, finally, we can have actual humor. It's out there waiting.