newonion

Why The Onion Must Be Held Accountable for Its Vile Tweet

(2/25/2013 11:50 AM UPDATE: As Jim Romenesko reported, The Onion has issued an apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

During last night’s Academy Awards, The Onion, a well-known satirical newspaper operating in Chicago, decided to row its barge into choppy waters. The Onion called Quvenzhane Wallis, a nine-year-old actress nominated for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a “cunt” on its Twitter feed:

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In less than 140 characters, The Onion betrayed and violated 25 years of satirical good will. For unless you are a sociopath, there is nothing funny about calling a child a “cunt” — especially when there isn’t any additional context to the purported “joke.” It’s possible that the tweet was meant to mimic some of Academy Award host Seth MacFarlane’s misogynist misfires such as the insinuation that Wallis would be ready for George Clooney in sixteen years. Still, if one doesn’t apply a modest dose of narrative artistry, a joke falls dead in the moraine. And it was this vital part of comedy that was clearly ignored by the nameless person at The Onion who concocted the tweet. Because of this, the tweet became nothing less than thoughtless hatred, an act of bullying where a Twitter feed with a very large pull used its power (4.7 million followers) to attack someone verbally.

Here’s what the Onion failed to do: When Hustler published a fake Campari ad of Jerry Falwell on the inside front cover of its November 1983 issue, the descriptive details were reasonable enough to be considered fabricated and absurd. A fictitious interviewer asked a fictitious Falwell about his “first time” and the result was a clearly ridiculous incestuous affair in an outhouse. Falwell sued, but he wasn’t able to win. Because the humorist behind the parody performed the basic professional duty of supplying a narrative. And because of these vital details, all clearly wrong and all clearly part of a joke, Hustler won an unanimous verdict from the Supreme Court.

Until last night, The Onion had maintained a commendable comedy reputation with narratives along these lines, although The Onion had been pushing the envelope more in recent months. One reads, for example, this commentary from “Joe Hundley” — a piece that the Onion‘s defenders (nearly all of them male) offered to those appalled by the tweet. But the reader immediately understands the irony of professed victimhood behind the act. Unlike the tweet, it is not mere invective, although there is unpleasant language conveyed for the sake of verisimilitude. Nor are any of the supporting characters in the story real figures. Whether you find Joe Hundley’s commentary funny or not, the piece takes on the qualities of Hustler‘s Campari parody and is defensible.

The Onion‘s tweet was especially troubling because the newspaper courts a largely male demographic, with 48% of its readership making $75,000/year or more, and there is undeniably privilege when a newspaper with a largely white, male, and affluent audience with just under 5 million followers on its Twitter feed picks on an African-American girl who is the daughter of a teacher and a truck driver.

As of early Monday morning, the offending tweet had been deleted from The Onion‘s Twitter feed. There was no acknowledgment in the Onion‘s Twitter feed that the tweet had been deleted, and there was no apology on the Onion‘s Twitter feed or its website. But there was a lot of understandable bile.

Now I don’t wish to suggest that the word “cunt” be prohibited from public speech. However, those who elect to use it in public dialogue need to understand the implications of the word, especially when it is directed at children. There’s a world of difference between what The Onion did last night and how George Carlin’s famous routine used “cunt.” Carlin was careful to illustrate the meaning of “cunt” and six other words. He was not using it to insult people, although people were insulted by his demystification of “cunt.”

But if someone is going to use “cunt” for hateful purposes — and there is truly no other interpretation of the Onion‘s tweet, whether the hatred was intended or not — then the organization or individual which employs such usage needs to be held accountable. As Gawker‘s Camille Dodero exposed last week in horrific detail, bullies with a power base can make an innocent person’s life quite miserable. Could not the Onion tweet, ratcheted up by others with too much time on their hands, be used to similarly hurt Quvenzhane Wallis? We take the risk every time we send something out into the universe, but sometimes we need a bit of forethought.

On Sunday evening, I put forth the proposition on Twitter that anyone who worked for The Onion and The A.V. Club, a print edition bundled with The Onion, should be held accountable for this tweet.

I called out members of The A.V. Club. Scott Tobias, film editor of The A.V. Club, claimed that because he and his writers do not write for the Twitter feed, they should neither consider the impact nor be held accountable for what their employer does. TV Editor Todd VanDerWerff, said that he “had literally nothing to do with the Onion.” I asked a point blank question to both Tobias and VandDerWerff:

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VanDerWerff replied with a fairly straightforward answer and explained that he has no regular contact with The Onion, which I thought at the time to be a fair and reasonable reply, until I checked his LinkedIn page and discovered this among his job duties:

Planned TV coverage with a freelance staff of several dozen. Editing that coverage. Wrote 10-15 pieces per week.

No contact with the Onion at all while managing several dozen freelancers? Really?

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However, the other striking aspect about VanDerWerff’s reply is that he had the decency to offer a direct answer to my question.

Tobias did not.

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As a film editor, Tobias almost certainly coordinates with people who work at The Onion. But he suggests in this tweet that The A.V. Club, a print supplement that is bundled with The Onion not unlike a newspaper section, is a publication that is as discrete as a separate magazine. This is misleading. One does not typically get Entertainment Weekly folded into an issue of Time. Nor is The Onion on the level of Time Warner. Time Warner employs 32,000 people. It is believed that Onion, Inc. employs 70.

I pointed out to Tobias that he was quite obligated to the company that signed his paychecks. Unlike VanDerWerff, he could not put himself on the line and respond with a firm position. He finally did answer my question, but his response is quite telling.

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So let’s break this down. Despite the fact that he works with people at The Onion, he is “not responsible.” In other words, Tobias has such lackadaisical journalistic standards that he could not care less about how the tone set by one part of The Onion (in this case, the Twitter feed) affects the section he edits.

Now it’s possible that I’m applying too much institutional value to The Onion‘s operation. But when I was on staff at a computer magazine, I learned very quickly the degree to which other editors and executives put pressure on you to adhere to the magazine’s standards and principles. As an articulated example of this, you can look no further than the very clear ethos adopted by The New York Times:

The company and its units believe beyond question that our staff shares the values these guidelines are intended to protect. Ordinarily, past differences of view over applying these values have been resolved amiably through discussion. The company has every reason to believe that such a pattern will continue. Nevertheless, the company views any intentional violation of these rules as a serious offense that may lead to disciplinary action, potentially including dismissal, subject to the terms of any applicable collective bargaining agreement.

Tobias doesn’t appear interested in such guidelines (if, indeed, any are in place), much less having a discussion about how an Onion staffer’s misogynistic breach might affect his operation. He’s “not responsible.” That’s how little he cares about The Onion and that’s how little he cares about the right tone.

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As Laurie Penny argued in November 2011, “If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions.” And it’s this unthinking idea of “not taking responsibility” and not taking a stand that allows casual misogyny to perpetuate. It is Tobias’s refusal to address challenges and this need to get approval from the people who already like him which kill the dialogue.

I’d like to think that The Onion and Tobias were better than this. I’d like to believe that they have it within them to do some soul-searching on what this failed joke really means for the work they do. But as long as The Onion circles the wagons, they’ll remain part of the problem that won’t go away, no matter how much they try to ignore it.

2/25/2013 11:50 AM UPDATE: As Jim Romenesko reported, The Onion has issued an apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

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Does Andrew Goldman, New York TImes Misogynist, Owe His Career to a Harvey Weinstein Headlock?

In recent months, The New York Times Sunday Magazine has published a remarkably tasteless series of misogynistic interviews that feel more at home in a pulp circular devoted to Bobby Riggs’s dwindling fan base than a renowned newspaper ostensibly committed to first-class journalism.

“I gather that people frequently assume you’re a lesbian,” began a question to esteemed Fresh Air host Terry Gross back in July, which went on to suggest that Gross had chosen to host Fresh Air rather than have children (a false insinuation which Gross corrected). Last month, the Times asked Whitney Cummings, “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?” And last Sunday, The New York Times asked the 82-year-old Tippi Hedren, “Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?”

These misogynistic queries all came from one man: Andrew Goldman, who took over the one page Q&A slot previously occupied by Deborah Solomon. Solomon’s questionable journalistic practices were exposed in 2007 by the New York Press‘s Matt Elzweig, and the longtime incompetent was pushed from her perch a few years later. (She last made waves debasing the 92nd Street Y and has disappeared from the New York media world like some troublesome bird obliterated into feeble feathers by a drunken gunman.)

But Goldman is far worse than Solomon ever was. He willfully infers a sexist half truth (“Did you sleep your way to the top?”) predicated on nothing more than his puerile imagination. This may have something to do with his lack of commitment to truth and fairness. As he revealed in a interview with The Slant back in April, Goldman was shocked that The New York Times would actually make an effort to get a quote right:

Two things surprised me when I started writing my column for the Times magazine. One, they insist on having an outside transcriber transcribe my interviews. They want to make sure they have a handle on the veracity of the transcript. Second, they actually call back the subjects and in full or in context read back the quotes to see if we misunderstood.

Goldman’s latest vulgar inquiry to Hedren led celebrated novelist Jennifer Weiner to tweet:

But as Galleycat’s Jason Boog reported this afternoon, Goldman, whose Twitter account has now been deleted, responded with the repulsive inventiveness of an eight-year-old sociopath who believes fart jokes or burning insects with a magnifying glass to be the ne plus ultra of comedy:

This resulted in a justifiable firestorm from New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum and Gimme Shelter author Mary Beth Williams, among others. Much of the exchange, collected before Goldman cowardly deleted the account containing his tweets, was put together by Jason Boog on Storify and can be found here.

While Goldman eventually apologized, this is not the first time that his hot and foolish head has steered him into trouble. On November 8, 2000, The New York Times reported that Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, got into a scuffle with Harvey Weinstein at a book party for Karen Duffy’s Model Patient. The conflict began when Rebecca Traister, who was also a reporter for the Observer, put forth a question to Weinstein that he reportedly did not like. As Traister was abandoning her interlocutory efforts, realizing that she wasn’t going to get any quotes from Weinstein, Goldman interceded. What followed was fairly hazy. Weinstein placed Goldman in a headlock.

Despite the considerable media presence, it was hushed up rather well. As David Carr reported in New York Magazine:

“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head. Weinstein deputized himself and insisted that Goldman apologize. His hubris would be hilarious if he weren’t able to back it up. Several paparazzi got pictures of the tussle, but Goldman bet me at the time that they would never see print.

I mailed him his dollar a week later. I’d talk to Goldman about it, except he now works for Talk magazine, which is half-owned by Miramax.

Did Goldman’s antics earn him the job at Talk Magazine? When Talk folded, Goldman ended up at Elle, where he put forth insipid questions to major names for many years (such as telling will.i.am. that Fantasy Island was created to provide “bathroom fodder for 14-year-old boys”) before falling upward into the New York Times‘s lofty heights. Perhaps Goldman should be commended for his pugilistic chicanery. Sometimes it’s not just who you know, but who puts you into a headlock.

10/10/12 UPDATE: New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has looked into this matter. Sullivan interviewed Jennifer Weiner about the incident and used this article as the basis for an investigation, asking questions to Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren about Goldman’s culpability. Lindgren replied:

We don’t publish material we believe to be misogynist or sexist. The blog post you sent me cited 3 examples, out of probably a thousand published questions that Andrew has asked since he took over the column. In the context of the full interviews, none of them struck me as sexist or misogynist. There were frank, sensitive questions, not declarations or assertions of his own. In the Terry Gross interview, Andrew is not making his own presumption about her sexuality. He is referring to an anecdote that was published in the introduction of her own book, which was made even clearer when she makes a joke about how widespread this misperception is. The Whitney Cummings question is perhaps a little cheekier but still refers to something other people have said about her — “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?”

10/19/12 UPDATE: In response to Sullivan’s investigation, associate managing editor for standards Philip B. Corbett issued a memo, extending the Times guidelines to social media. Moreover, Goldman was suspended for four weeks. In response, Jennifer Weiner offered the following tweets:

10/20/12 UPDATE: Despite Goldman’s apology and his suspension, Goldman’s latest Q&A with T.C. Boyle continues in the same misogynistic direction as Goldman’s previous Q&As, with Goldman suggesting that Boyle’s wife isn’t “letting the dishes pile up in the sink.”

The Super Bowl: Madison Avenue Misogyny

It was a great game, perhaps the most gripping final NFL showdown of the past five years, with a second half opening with a daring onside kick and Garrett Hartley becoming the first placekicker to make three field goals over forty yards in any Super Bowl. Marvelous. And I might have come away from the annual experience howling in the streets for my avenged Jets, had not my viewing been sullied by an atavistic rash of misogynistic commercials.

Granted, your average redblooded spectator does not necessarily watch television sports commercials with the intent of seeing women presented as positive role models. We’ve become used to seeing women objectified, often dressed in bikinis and/or using their anatomy to sell some vacuous commercial experience. But Super Bowl XLIV’s commercials were much different. They were cruder and uglier, going well out of their way to not only objectify women, but to suggest that anyone with a vagina who asserted herself should be ridiculed.

There was the Motorola commercial featuring a naked Megan Fox in a bubble bath, referring to her phone as “this little guy” and permitting her objectified photographic form to cause a series of disruptions. But that was comparatively modest with the misogyny to come. There was the FloTV commercial in which a man suffered from an allegorical injury in which his girlfriend had removed his spine, “rendering him incapable of watching the game.” FloTV’s underlying idea, of course, was that women could not possibly enjoy football and that women are natural ballbusters who force their boyfriends to go shopping. There was the Dodge Charger Commercial, in which various men are seen, with their internal thoughts voiced by Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who announces the perfunctory domestic demands from other women: “I will eat some fruit as part of my breakfast. I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.”

But the real big-prick offender was probably Bud Light’s Book Club ad (which can be viewed above), which combined its misogynistic message with an anti-reading subtext. The commercial begins with a woman describing how there’s “so much passion” within the book she’s reading. A man then arrives wearing a sports T-shirt and shorts, saying, “Have a nice book club. I’ll be at the game.” He then eyes several chilled bottles of Bud Light and then sits down on a couch between two women, rudely interrupting their discussion. “So what’s the story?” he says, as some rock and roll music emerges onto the soundtrack. “We were discussing the relationship of two women…”

“Two women,” he interrupts, immediately connoting a lesbian fantasy, perhaps with the two women he is squeezed between.

“…who are thrust in by war,” continues the woman.

“Oooh,” he replies. “Thrusting.”

“A war neither of them understands,” she continues, offering a modest nod that indicates her role as either patient nurturer or someone barely able to understand the book that she’s discussing.

“Awesome,” he says. “Good times. I love Book Club!”

And in a rather sly move by the director, sealing the woman’s objectified place, the woman’s red sweater slips down her left shoulder, revealing more of her anatomy.

We cut back after a product announcement and observe an exchange between the man and another woman. The book club has degenerated into a beer drinking session.

This new woman says, “So then do you like Little Women?” (Little, get it?)

He says, “Yeah, I’m not too picky. No.” And the commercial then stops, ending on this open-ended sexual proposition.

Here then is the ad’s anti-women and anti-reading worldview: Women, no matter what their goals, aspirations, or interests, have no other role in society other than getting fucked by men. Let women have their “little” book clubs, which can be easily interrupted on a masculine whim and which women will never dare object to. They will set everything aside to give you head or to serve you beer.

And, by the way, if you’re a man, you don’t even need to read to get ahead in the world. (Indeed, one of the commercial’s curious philosophical positions is that one cannot both enjoy beer — at least the stuff better than the undrinkable swill that is being sold in this commercial — and books. Speaking as a man who enjoys beer, books, and football, and who finds intelligent women far sexier than empty-headed centerfolds, I happily refute these stereotypes through my very existence.)

Some might argue that the advertisement is not intended to be taken seriously — that it is a jocular offering to be easily disregarded. But because the Super Bowl is watched by close to 100 million people and because the Super Bowl commercials are subjected to such intense post-game scrutiny (to cite one example, as I write this essay, a message now appears at the top of YouTube: “Watch and Vote on Your Favorite Commercials from Super Bowl Sunday. Vote Now.”), it is perhaps more important for us to consider the impact that one Super Bowl commercial has on its audience. Let us assume that 1% of the Super Bowl audience (or about 1 million) take the Book Club advertisement seriously. Will they, in turn, be inspired to avoid books and break up female book clubs?

The great irony here is that these misogynist commercials were aired, including an anti-abortion Focus on the Family advocacy ad, even as CBS rejected a gay online dating commercial. And, indeed, if women are deemed so problematic by the Madison Avenue hucksters, then why shouldn’t the audience consider a man instead?

The open-ended question of whether Super Bowl commercials should be guided by some morality was indeed broached by Chicago Tribune religious reporter Manya Brachear. To this, I would respond that Super Bowl XXXVIII’s infamous Nipplegate controversy established very clear moral guidelines. Show part of a woman’s breast (adorned with nipple plate) and you will be hounded by the FCC and Christian moralists. But feel free to objectify a woman’s breast all you like. Because the need to sell more Coca-Cola outweighs human dignity.

[UPDATE: A reader correctly points out that, in this essay’s original form, I confused this year’s Teleflora ad, which involved a similar setup, with last year’s Teleflora ad. Accordingly, I have removed the following description from the piece, preserving it at the end to demonstrate another example of Madison Avenue’s commitment to Super Bowl misogyny: “Then there was the despicable Teleflora ad, in which a woman receives flowers and the flowers talk back, ‘Oh no! Look at the mug on you! Diane, you’re a trainwreck. That’s why he always sent a box of flowers. Go home to your romance novels and your fat smelly cat,’ followed by another sully: ‘Nobody wants to see you naked.’ The Teleflora commercial presented an additional punchline: a male office worker named Gary who comes up to Diane not to ask if she’s okay, but to announce, ‘I’d like to see you naked’ (surely a violation of sexual harassment law), before being cut off by the humiliated Diane.]

[UPDATE 2: Survival of the Book’s Brianoffers a thoughtful response to my post, pointing out one minor point I neglected to mention — that the women were the ones who procured the Bud Lights for their own enjoyment in the commercial. This raises the possibility that they were trying to get rid of the jock so that they could enjoy their beer with their books. It’s a fair interpretation: one that I might entirely agree with, had the women not been presented as sex objects in the latter portion of the commercial. Brian’s interpretation permits the Book Club to serve as a male fantasy. But if this crude male fantasy involves sneering down at women and books, then I stand by my original assessment.]

Dave Sim: The Stalin of Comics

In case you haven’t heard the news, the once great Dave Sim has demanded that anyone who corresponds with him must pledge that Sim isn’t a misogynist. The whole business has erupted into a sad and terrible train wreck in which Sim has nearly alienated his friend Chester Brown and spurned long-time fans. And it’s all because Sim doesn’t appear to be acquainted with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Calling Sim a misogynist is not libelous. It is the truth. A misogynist is someone who hates women. And the man who wrote, “It wouldn’t be that big of a stretch to categorize my writing as Hate Literature against women,” in Issue #186 of Cerberus, speaking in his own voice, is most certainly a misogynist. For years and years, Sim has been spewing out this bile. And rather than take his lumps and be the man he thinks he is, he instead wants to set terms and alienate everyone in the process. These are not the actions of a civilized person.

For years, I’ve tried to overlook Sim’s hateful ramblings for the great wonders contained within the early books of Cerberus. But if Sim is going to set terms for us, I’m going to set a few terms for him. Until Sim can confess that he is the working definition of a misogynist, I will never buy another comic written or illustrated by Dave Sim or acknowledge Dave Sim in any way ever again. The great talent Dave Sim has been replaced by an atavistic creature who now calls himself “Dave Sim,” who believes himself to be some small-time Stalin and perpetuates this sad despotism as long as his delusional hubris will let him. He has now fully disappeared from my cultural radar. And it’s too damn bad. Because when he was still sane, he was an innovator.