Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Consider The Onion: A Pulitzer Plea

onion_bg-766346Fake news isn’t new. Satirical jibes at journalism masquerading as journalism date back to at least 1835 when Richard A. Locke created the Great Moon Hoax in the New York Sun. Not only was Locke looking to increase sales of the upstart Sun, he was ridiculing contemporary theories in astronomy – including one Scottish reverend’s assertion that upwards of four billion people (or whatever they were) lived on the Moon.

The Onion isn’t that far removed from Locke and his hoax. Started in 1988 by two University of Wisconsin students, The Onion rose from its clever college rag roots to become an international brand of news-related comedy under the direction of founding Editor-in-Chief Scott Dikkers. Dikkers oversaw the launch of its website in 1996, which proliferated the publication’s classic style of deadpan satire.

Its imitation of actual print journalism – Associated Press formatting, a mix of editorial and on-the-street reporting – is The Onion’s greatest asset. They’ve so mastered the art of the headline that you rarely need read past “U.S. General Jealous That Syrian Army Allowed To Attack Citizens” to have a good ouch-too-true chuckle.

And now The Onion staff would like to be recognized for their efforts. Having just celebrated their 1000th issue yesterday, they’ve contracted serious Pulitzer hunger. They want the Prize, and they’re mobilizing the Internet on their behalf.

Americans for Fairness in Awarding Journalism Prizes, they call themselves. They have a website (it’s a Tumblr, naturally) for their “nonprofit” organization. Their website has an online petition (because those work so well) to stop the Pulitzer Committee’s “despicable bigotry against The Onion.” They have a rhetoric-spewing leader in “Stephen Forbeck” who proudly declares the organization’s motto: “Getting Media Organizations The Journalism Awards They Deserve.”

They really love pronouncing the ‘p’ in “Afajp!”

Forbeck also holds a J.D. in “award law.” Touché, AFAJP.

We’re not The Onion, so allow me to dispel this flimsy illusion: The Onion started AFAJP. Did that shocking news surprise you? Then you should read The Onion more. It’s all a dissection of the idea that one reports on the news for the awards. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone* addressed a similar problem from a different angle: skewering the notion of winning awards for being serious about comedy just weeks before they won a truckload of awards for being seriously good at comedy.

What’s more surprising than the award lampooning itself is the top-shelf talent they’ve cast in this farce. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili recorded a video for their site. Oprah’s best friend Gayle King devoted airtime to it on her weird TV-show-but-it’s-actually-a-radio-show thing. Arianna Huffington took a break from penny-pinching freelancers to speak out on The Onion’s behalf. Even professional award-winner Tom Hanks joined in:

When did Tom Hanks get old? Did I sleep through that or something?

Though the campaign coincides nicely with The Onion’s thousandth issue, it’s a few months for the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes. Announced this past April, prizes in Journalism went to reports exposing corruption in Wall Street and California, for illuminating Russia’s busted courts, and for a cartoon about guns or something, among others. No mention of The Onion – or any fake news, for that matter. Not even in the Fiction prize, which went to some book about aging rockers in the Internet era.

On the bright side, being late for 2011 means getting a head start on 2012. And what better way to kick off the apocalypse than with awarding a prize for journalistic excellence to a satirical news network? Stranger things have happened. No, really, they have.

Last year, former presidential candidate John Edwards admitted to having an affair, and there was speculation the National Enquirer might be up for a Pulitzer. The Enquirer had been covering the story since 2006, breaking exclusives left and right with repeated denials from Edwards and relatively little response from mainstream media. It wasn’t until Edwards’ admission that the press sat up and took notice: a Hollywood tabloid had scooped them. Quite the controversy. Unfortunately, no prizes came the Enquirer’s way and we all went back to regarding it as that Angelina Jolie-themed birdcage-liner on sale in checkout lines.

Stirring up controversy may be to The Onion’s benefit, as the mysterious Pulitzer cabal (to borrow from the above Mr. Hanks) is no stranger to internal disagreement and relaxation of capital P principles. Online journalism submissions were not accepted without reservation until 2006. The Music prize, a late addition 1943, would not go to a jazz musician until Wynton Marsalis in 1997. Edward Albee’s drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was rejected by the board in 1963 for not being “uplifting” enough, but Tony Kushner’s thoroughly depressing yet deeply moving Angels in America: Millennium Approaches won in 1993. Given time, even Pulitzer committee suits will relent.

So it’s good The Onion is toiling away on this campaign. Judging by historical precedent, there’ll be a prize for “Satirical Reporting” by no later than The Onion’s 1,500th episode.

Oh, what the hell. Just give them a Fiction award and be done with it.

CORRECTION: This article originally reversed the first names of the South Park guys.