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In the 'Post-Truth Era' of 'Fake News' Where Does Satire Fit In?

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Antonio Zugaldia
/
Flickr

For the last 25 years, The Onion has been the satirical newspaper of record. But as the lines between real and fake news are blurrier than ever, does that mean the end of satire? The paper's founding editor, Scott Dikkers, says this is an age-old question.

"There's always something that happens where people are saying, 'Well, I guess we can't have satire anymore.' And I think what they're saying is that Americans don't have a good sense of irony, they never have, and we continue to see evidence of that as the world unrolls or unravels, however you want to look at it," he explains.

"It is very difficult to exaggerate an already hyperbolic situation."

The Second City humor writing teacher admits that some of the devices of satire have been strained by the current political climate, something he dealt with while writing Trump’s America: The Complete Loser’s Guide. "It is very difficult to exaggerate an already hyperbolic situation. Like Donald Trump is a hyperbolic person, so in doing this book that we just did, Trump's America, one of the challenges was, well: how do you hyperbolize a hyperbole?" 

Still, Dikkers says there are other ways to satirize the news, and he believes satire can be a great way for people to deal with current events. "There's a lot of people upset, there's a lot of people in the streets and humor is a wonderful coping mechanism."

Some of Dikkers' experiences at The Onion are prescient at a time when the concept of satire has become muddled with fake news and other types of media meant to confuse readers into believing falsehoods. He says it took time for The Onion to get a handle on what was fair game to satirize and what wasn't.

"It took a long time to learn that satire has to afflict the comfortable and not afflict the afflicted; you have to punch up and not down."

"It took a long time to learn that satire has to afflict the comfortable and not afflict the afflicted; you have to punch up and not down," he explains. "That's why it always kind of has this pro-human bent to it and doesn't feel totally evil or mean spirited, even when it's making vicious fun of people."

"But... some people do not like being made fun of and they get angry, and one of those people, unfortunately, is now our president," he continues.

This has become an issue as Trump and other politicians have seized on the concept of fake news to discredit stories they don't like, whether satirical or a serious news story. 

"Many people consider satire itself to be fake news now, because that's primarily the way that you see satire delivered now because of The Onion," says Dikkers, who makes a clear distinction between fake news and satire. 

Fake news sites intended to fool people, started popping up after The Onion and shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report became popular. Dikkers says he doesn't quite understand who benefits from these sites. 

"I guess the only people who gain [from fake news] are the people who might use that information for propaganda because they know that nobody's going to dig into it and learn what's true and what's not and they're just going to believe it and if it bolsters their viewpoint, then it's great propaganda."

"The person who creates the work doesn't gain anything, the people who believe it don't gain anything," he says. "I guess the only people who gain are the people who might use that information for propaganda because they know that nobody's going to dig into it and learn what's true and what's not and they're just going to believe it and if it bolsters their viewpoint, then it's great propaganda." 

Beyond fake news sites that embolden propaganda, Dikkers says there are issues with corporate news organizations that push a particular agenda. "The vast majority of news that people actually consume is corporate owned... they don't have to step in and actively say, 'You can't say this,' or, 'You should say this because it will bolster our profits,' but they hire and promote people who will prop up the corporate interests and will prop up the establishment point of view."

"So you have this totally elite, disconnected media now, who talk about nothing, who only talk about shiny, attention-getting stories that will keep you watching through the commercials. They don't actually consider themselves as having any responsibility to inform the citizenry which is the point of the media," he says.

Dikkers says the issues with corporate news are similar to the issues with fake news: instead of looking for the truth, most people would prefer to read news that confirms their existing beliefs. "When faced between something that feels good to believe versus something that is true but unpleasant, we're going to take the former every time."

Dikkers will talk more about The Onion, and the lines between new, fake news and satire at an event at Marquette University on February 15

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.