In 1997, the artist Bob Cassilly, along with his wife Gail, opened a museum near downtown St. Louis, MO. I could see the building that housed the museum, or more specifically, the hippopotamus perched on the top floor of it, when I walked out of the front door of my apartment building. It was not until my son saw a giant sculpture of his favorite pet — a praying mantis — that I took my two young children into that fascinating environment. And it was there that I found a publication that had been described to me by a co-worker as “a cool read.”
Lauren and Chris were cavorting somewhere in the City Museum while I sat in a small café called “Beatnik Bob,” reading a newspaper. The stories were curiously fantastic and I blindly followed one that jumped from the front cover to page 114. There was no page 114, and I frantically snatched pages, trying to track down the ending of the story. I went back to the beginning of the story and then to others in the paper and realized that I was reading that satirical publication that my Wisconsin friend had told me about: The Onion.
Chris Johnson and Tim Keck were two college students in Madison, Wisconsin, who started The Onion in 1988, “primarily to sell pizza coupons.” Editor-in-Chief Will Tracy told an NPR program host in 2013 that, “one of the things that separates us from maybe other fake news outlets is, most of what we do … is focusing on the everyday minutiae, more so than what’s happening in Washington.” I don’t remember the banner on the paper that I was reading in the City Museum, but The Onion’s current website says that it is “A farcical newspaper featuring world, national and community news.” A banner over a “news” item declares that it is “America’s Finest Newspaper.” Should anyone cite The Onion as a legitimate news source today, they are likely to be met with derision, since the publication itself has made no such claim.
In the 1990s, I mimicked the satirical approach of The Onion when my boss, the advertising creative director for a St. Louis department store, tasked her copy director and me, her assistant creative director, with “making the department more fun.” She directed us to start an in-house newsletter. The copy director was less than enthusiastic about the idea, so I took it upon myself to create an alternative publication, one that focused on the funny and fantastic things that occurred within — and without — the department, and often included space-filler items that I knit from whole cloth. (Read: lies I made up.) I did it to make people laugh, and though I did not declare that my story of the fire department responding to a cooking episode gone wrong was “FAKE NEWS,” the tenor of publication set up the possibility of disbelief.
It can be argued that The Onion is not maliciously deceptive, nor was my weak imitation, The Slipsheet. The objective was, and is, to amuse. The bromide claims that “laughter is the best medicine,” and I want to deliver those meds. The Onion does this, but some people do not read the label that says, “This is not real medicine,” and pass the bottle to others. And some, knowing that a critical eye has not been turned on the source of the medicine, pour it down the gullible gullets of an unsuspecting public. Some truths may be “self-evident,” but in the flash-fire culture of a social media age, some things are true, while others are truthfully, fake news.
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