The Onion: An Empire Founded on Satire

Adam Bernards

Susan Brown

ENGL 4310

September 28, 2015

““This guy’s really interested in the poor, so we should have something nice to say, like, I don’t know, how they’re salt-of-the-earth people or how they’re humble or something like that,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), one of several dozen representatives who stood around struggling for nearly half an hour to come up with any positive associations they felt toward the country’s impoverished population” (The Onion).

Since its conception in 1988, The Onion has cemented itself as one of the best sources for satirical writing, in particular political satire, in the United States. Its articles provide a uniquely intelligent and witty brand of social commentary that has attracted massive readership across North America, and the rest of the world. In its “About Us” section, The Onion sarcastically boasts a daily readership of 4.3 trillion, claiming itself to have a “towering standard of excellence to which the rest of the industry aspires” (About The Onion). This daily readership statistic is obviously false, but their actual readership is roughly one million readers per month, a number which is not insignificant when you consider the niche market they cater to (Wenner, Peeling The Onion). It’s relatively large (and constantly growing) readership, paired with the high level of intelligence buried beneath the humorous top layer has lead many to question whether satirical news sources like The Onion aren’t just as important as pieces of political commentary as they are as instances of comedic writing. The Onion provides a uniquely honest commentary on the world around it, and for that reason among many others, it is clear that it has a much greater importance to society than just being funny. Not only is it a powerful source of social and political commentary, but it is steadily growing into a prominent social media platform.

On the surface, one can hardly find a piece of serious information on The Onion’s website. Its “About the Onion” section claims it was founded in 1765, operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes, and is “the single most powerful and influential organization in human history” (About the Onion). It seems at first glance that nearly every other sentence on the entire website contains a joke in some form. It is first and foremost an entertainment website after all. That said, after reading only one article from its politics section, one begins to see that The Onion is much more than a website full of cheap jokes. Beneath that layer of humour is a well-informed, expertly crafted political opinion that uses comedy to convey its message. Sociologists Shawn Bingham and Alexander Hernandez speak to the power of comedy as a means of conveying knowledge in a classroom setting in their article “Laughing Matters”: The Comedian as Social Observer, Teacher, and Conduit of the Sociological Perspective.

“Laughing Matters” is an extensive analysis of the value that satire and comedy can have in a classroom setting. Their article claims that this value comes from the accessibility that comedy and satire provide; essentially that a student is more likely to retain information if they are being entertained as they receive it. They point to a fellow sociologist, Murray S. Davis, who claims that comedians “break open our frames by disordering what has been ordered by human constructions and social expectations” (Bingham and Hernandez 337). What Murray is ostensibly saying is that comedians have the advantage of not being confined to those “social expectations” that would dictate to others what information they can convey, and how they can convey it. Using the example of a different Onion article than the one being discussed here, Bingham and Hernandez point to a specific case of a time when satire was used effectively to get the students thinking on a deeper level about the subject matter. The article in question was headlined with the caption “Myspace Outage Leaves Millions Friendless”, and it was used to force the students to think about the role social media plays in their lives. Observing how this was successful, they say, “satire became a vehicle for engaging students in analysis of the norms, structure and habits that exist in the Myspace World” (Bingham and Hernandez 339). To speak to the value of The Onion in particular, Bingham and Hernandez list it alongside Comedy Central and Clipblast as one of the “sites that provided us with a good start, yielding the most material” (Bingham and Hernandez 341). Bingham and Hernandez speak to the quantity and the quality of content on The Onion’s website. In terms of our discussion on the power and importance of satire news sources like the Onion, they definitively conclude that satire is just as valid as a conduit of social and political information as any other source; but in mentioning the quantity of their content, they inadvertently bring us to a positive evaluation of The Onion as a piece of social media as well.

Regardless of its content, The Onion‘s website is an effectively designed piece of social media that encourages its readers to stay on and continue reading once they have come to the site in the first place. From any given article, the reader has access so several more without even needing to scroll down on the page. Of course, once they do that, they gain instant access to even more articles and videos. From an article, the reader only has to scroll down to read the next article in that section; or they can choose to click the “Menu” tab which always remains at the top of the screen, even when you scroll down, and gain access to the main page, or to any of the eight sections of the online newspaper. In his article “The Onion is Not a Joke” Chris Heller speaks to the power of this recently redesigned website: “The Onion unveiled its new website on Friday, and through it, we can see a glimpse of what The Onion might become: a real media empire” (Heller). Here Heller emphasizes that The Onion has become much more than a fake newspaper. He goes on to say, “Onion Inc. cannot be described, simply, as a publisher. It has been transformed into a bonafide digital media company—with a profitable, in-house advertising agency in tow—that wants to succeed where the targets of its barbs have not” (Heller). Heller is certain that The Onion is on the rise as a social media empire, which stands just as powerful as the institutions it exists to parody.

Satire news sources like The Onion have a unique and powerful impact on the political and social world. They have the benefit of accessibility that many more conventional news sources simply don’t have. Bingham and Hernandez say “laughter is often a reaction to something that resonates with students” (Bingham and Hernandez 350). The ability that satire has to convey information and entertain its reader at the same time sets it apart from traditional newspapers. Its for exactly this reason, coupled with The Onion‘s recent efforts to rebrand and expand its reach, that it is growing into the media empire that Chris Heller claims it is. It’s intelligent design and well crafted content cement it as an effective and powerful instance of social media.

Word Count: 1133

Time posted 9:00 pm, Monday September 28th

 

Works Cited

“About The Onion.” The Onion. Onion Inc. Web. <http://www.theonion.com/about/&gt;.
Bingham, Shawn, and Alexander Hernandez. “”Laughing Matters”: The Comedian as Social Observer, Teacher, and Conduit of the Sociological Perspective.” Teaching Sociology 37.4 (2009): 335-52. Web.
Heller, Chris. “The Onion Is Not a Joke.” The Atlantic 1 May 2015. Web.
“House Lawmakers Brainstorming Some Good Things To Say About Poor People Before Meeting Pope Francis.” The Onion. Onion Inc., 22 Sept. 2015. Web.
Wenner, Kathryn. “Peeling the Onion.” American Journalism Review 1 Sept. 2002. Web. <http://ajrarchive.org/Article.asp?id=2618&gt;.
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