COLUMBIA, Mo. — Satirists have always skirted a line between offending and enlightening their audiences. Possibly the most popular contemporary satire is the newspaper The Onion. The publication wrestled this week with the best way to walk this line in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The result is Wednesday’s issue, which satirizes the nation’s response to the attacks with headlines such as “Bush Vows to Defeat Whoever it is We Are at War With,” and “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.”
A staff member said the decision to run such pieces was not an easy one to reach for The Onion’s editorial staff.
“Sitting in those first staff meetings last week, I felt nauseous,” staff writer Joe Garden said. “I knew our hearts would be in the right place, but I didn’t give the reading public enough credit. I thought they would hate us for running anything with any kind of satirical bent.”
After long deliberation, The Onion staff decided to produce an issue devoted entirely to the attacks after publishing nothing last week.
“Rob [Siegel], our editor, was totally confident that we were doing the right thing,” Garden said. “He told us this would be our biggest issue ever and that we were doing the right thing.”
Public response has confirmed the staff’s belief that publishing such an issue was the correct decision, Garden said.
“For a normal issue, we get anywhere between 10 to 70 (e-mails),” Garden said. “We’ve already received over 1,000 for this issue, and I’d say about 95 percent of them have been positive.”
Looking at a situation in a satirical light can allow the public to view things in a different way, Garden said. This fresh point of view could be the most valuable argument in favor of writing such stories, he said.
“We’ve spent two weeks wandering around in numb horror,” Garden said. “We’re just trying to get people to break out of their usual rhetoric, to put everything into a different context.”
Others said they feel this kind of satire too quickly followed the attacks, including Belle Adler, Northeastern University professor of journalism and expert on media ethics.
“Anyone who’s lost a loved one in the attacks is probably not going to think this is appropriate,” Adler said. “The country is in mourning right now, and you just don’t make fun of a funeral.”
Some fans of the publication also agreed that perhaps the satire was in bad taste.
“That’s just not something to joke about,” said University of Missouri junior John Lindsey, who is a frequent reader of The Onion. “Too many lives were lost.”
Garden remains confident in The Onion’s decision.
“We’re not dishonoring the dead or the president,” Garden said. “We’re just putting the situation into a satiric light, a different way of looking at it. Right now, I’m proud to be a part of The Onion.”