Washington, D.C., was the scene of a devastating satirical attack this morning, as a tweet from The Onion, the well-known fake-news site, intersected with the most humorless residents of the most self-absorbed city in the world, touching off a tsunami of ultra-seriousness. Now, the Beltway media are left to grapple with the essential question: How could this happen here?
It all began at 10:33 a.m., when The Onion's Twitter feed posted a tweet that read, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building." Now, normally, when The Onion tweets things like "Small-Town Sheriff Has Actually Killed Surprising Amount Of People" or "Pediatricians Announce 2011 Newborns Are Ugliest Babies In 30 Years," people in English-speaking nations all around the world demonstrate, with a high degree of skill, the ability to understand that the things The Onion tweets are not, strictly speaking, true. On those rare occasions when there is a notable failure to come to grips with this reality, the media enjoy having a laugh at the expense of the ignorant.
Today, their ability to remain aware that they were, as they say, "in on the joke" failed them. Instead, everyone decided it was absolutely plausible that a satiric website in New York City had managed to scoop the entire Beltway press corps on a story that involved gunfire at the Capitol. No, the tweet, in and of itself was not what I would call "hilarious." Yes, we live in an age of frayed nerves. But most people know enough to stop themselves at the seventh word when they find themselves saying, "Oh, my God, The Onion is reporting that the Capitol is under attack!"
I can understand and respect that people have different points at which the laughter stops. And I'll allow that for many, this tweet probably crossed a line. I'll only point out that finding where the line is and crossing it basically describes The Onion's entire mission. But there's a distinction to be made between decent people being offended and officials actually taking this stuff seriously:
US Capitol Police on Thursday flatly denied a joke claim on the popular satire website The Onion's Twitter feed of "screams and gunfire" in the Congress and said they were investigating the comment.
"Conditions at the US Capitol are currently normal. There is no credibility to these stories or the Twitter feeds," said a spokeswoman for US Capitol Police, Sergeant Kimberly Schneider.
"The US Capitol Police are currently investigating the reporting," she said in a statement issued roughly half an hour after The Onion's first tweet about a supposed violent standoff in the US Congress.
Oh, the Capitol Police are "investigating the reporting"? I sure hope they manage to close that case! (Keep reading Twitter, maybe? That's just an amateur crime-solving tip I have.)
As The Onion noted in its statement to the Washington Post, "This is satire. That's how it works." In this case, it's probably worked like gangbusters, as the fake-news article the tweet teased, "Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage," is now being widely read.
But, for the record, let's be clear: No children are currently endangered in a literal hostage-taking crisis. Of course, we should recall that the entire nation was recently endangered as Congress got bogged down in a figurative hostage-taking crisis over the debt ceiling, which led to Standard & Poor's downgrading the United States on the grounds that Congress' taking the nation to the brink of default was a sign of deep dysfunction and incompetence.
As always, remember that the most effective satire contains a germ of truth, and what The Onion has very ably pointed out today is that our lawmakers are a bunch of rapaciously self-centered idiot-dicks who care very little for the people who are impacted by their actions. What I find all the more hilarious is that while the Beltway media relentlessly treated that crisis as a matter in which the debt-ceiling hostage-takers' point of view was perfectly legitimate and should be covered without criticism, this bit of fakery from The Onion has everyone fulminating with condemnation. All told, it's a pretty good gag.