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:


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:


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Devil and Miss Cody

Diablo Cody’s win over Tamara Jenkins for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar is perhaps the most egregious Oscar victory since Oliver! beat out 2001 for Best Picture in 1968. If this were a just universe, the appropriate executives would have taken Cody out behind the shed shortly after reading Juno and shot her down like an old dog. Instead, the Academy awarded Cody the Oscar for relying upon cultural references over emotional conviction, for using characters who are ironically detached rather than prepared to face the visceral realities of responsibility, and for encouraging Jason Reitman to employ the most insipid use of angst-ridden indie rock in cinema I’ve seen in some time.

diablocody.jpgLet us be clear on this. I saw all five Best Picture nominees. And while I liked the other four, it is an outrage that so many thinking people have been duped by Juno. Ellen Page’s snarky one-note performance, originating from the same creative morass that spawned such execrable “wonders” as Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, and Wes Anderson’s films after The Royal Tenenbaums, is considered multilayered and superlative. Nobody has had the balls to call out Reitman for relying so heavily upon great character actors like Rainn Wilson and Allison Janney to disguise his creative deficiencies. Juno was nothing more than an extended episode of Arrested Development — a dreadful film in which such filmmaking tactics as six consecutive cuts of a van driving in front of a suburban house are considered “clever” and in which Michael Cera has been encouraged to abdicate his talent in favor of being typecast as the nice guy (and he will most certainly be typecast, if he takes another one of these damnable roles).

Juno is a film that would rather have its titular protagonist cry out “Thundercats, ho!” while she is going into labor than express anything tantamount to fright or second thoughts. It is a film content to have Jason Bateman name-check Herschell Gordon Lewis and Sonic Youth instead of having him emote over the difficulties of getting older. It is a film content with such cheapshots as Jennifer Garner presented as a yuppie mom caricature and another mom (played by Darla Vandenbossche) mocked for being older and overweight. (In fact, Vandenbossche’s sole purpose for being in this film is to be ridiculed by Cody. What does that say about emerging talent?) This is a film designed for people who do not feel or embrace the world in any genuine way. With the exception of Juno’s parents (played by Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons), I felt nothing for any of the characters in this film. They were uninteresting, solipsistic, and as hackneyed as the flattest of paper dolls. I was appalled at the film’s reliance upon artifice over conviction. Handing over the Oscar to that inarticulate waif Sofia Coppola was one thing. But giving it to Cody for Juno last night was a true injustice.

The best original screenplay of 2007 — Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, which bristled with emotion and intelligence — was entirely ignored by both the Academy and the purported streetcred of the Independent Spirit Award for a film phonier than a second-hand Hallmark card. If awards ceremonies are anything to go by, Hollywood is in trouble. Homegrown talent can’t measure up. Not only is Hollywood awarding its acting laurels to the Europeans, but it now feel content to dismiss any screenwriter who dares to pursue the human heart in conflict with itself. It’s the hip adding machines like Cody who now matter. But despite Cody’s penchant for taking off her clothes, the naked truth of true emotion eludes her.

The party’s over

But what a party it was, Ed.

After a blow-out like that, I’m sure everyone’s ready for a laid back weekend. I know I am. Why not read a book? This one is pretty good. This gentleman thought so. And so did this fellow. A bunch of others did I too, but let’s not get redundant.

Hey! I just jumped over to that Amazon page! You’d better hurry up and order! There’s only one left in stock! Oh … wait a minute … there’s more on the way. Everyone can relax. But whew, that was close!

(I used five exclamation points in that last graph!)

Some people don’t like the cover of that book. Hell of a thing when some chick fools around for years writing and rewriting a cool little book and people sniff at the picture on the cover and don’t even give it a chance. It’s sort of like taking a thousand dance lessons, getting pretty good at the mambo, then being forced to wear a dress someone else picked out for the ball that ain’t so great and spending the evening wandering around the punch bowl.

I know. How about this: I’ll give you a sample–just like the lady with the tray of little paper cups at the grocery store. But instead of a tiny hot dog piece (sorry Tao), here’s a taste of what’s inside of the book.

I guess that’s all for now. I loved spending time with all of you. Ed, you throw one hell of a bash.


Now if anyone finds my undies (the ones with the zipper) please send them here.



My Attentions Are Elsewhere

Okay, folks, I’m busy with the Oscar blog this weekend, which even before the ceremony has filled up with some fine posts. We have somewhere around 35 people on tap, including many of the fine folks on the right, Jennifer Weiner, Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Elizabeth Crane, and countless others. Plus, predictions from David Kipen, Aimee Bender, and some thoughts from Jonathan Ames. Even Robert Birnbaum is blogging.

The Oscar Pool

If you want to get into dichotimies, I suspect that there are computer mechanics and car mechanics. There are people who understand and appreciate comics and there are people who don’t. And when it comes to yearly televised fluff (that is, if we have to choose one), there are Oscar people and there are Super Bowl people. (And if you haven’t guessed already, I’m one of the former.)

Some folks in the know say that Chris Rock’s career is on the line. And they may be right. David Letterman was about as close as mainstream acceptance got to quirky and not even he could cut the mustard. And isn’t this the kind of sacrifice that fluff is all about? If you’re a running back who blows a reception in the Super Bowl, sure, the fans are going to kick your ass for a month or so and there’s a good chance you’re going to get traded. But if it’s the Oscars, not only can you not come back (unless, like Billy Crystal, your win-loss record is good), but you could end up thrown into coach. (Case in point: It may have been a fait accompli, but was it Oscar that fueled Whoopi’s sad slide into the mediocre world of Hollywood Squares?)

But if you really want to know what keeps me coming, it’s the gambling pools. I don’t bet on football anymore, but with Oscar bets, at least you can create some modest illusion that you’re throwing around money for something quasi-cultural.

With this in mind, I unveil my Oscar predictions. This is not a measure of who should win, but rather who will win. I’ve been wrong before, but let it not be said that I didn’t have flaunt around a crystal ball every now and then.


Last year was Eastwood’s year. And Million Dollar Baby has had this weird tendency to alienate every female film geek I’ve talked with. Sideways is too character-based to win. Which leaves Finding Neverland, Ray and The Aviator vying for pure spectacle. And since The Aviator has planes, pathos and explosions (always a firm bet with Academy voters) and this is the second of the Harvey-Marty pairup pictures, my guess is that Marty will win after being denied so many years.

BEST DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese

I’m fairly confident this one’s in the bag. But if Taylor Hackford wins, then the universe is indeed cruel and without integrity.

BEST ACTOR: Jamie Foxx

He may have extended range, but they won’t give it to Leo. Million Dollar Baby was more about Swank than Eastwood. And Depp needs one more nomination before they give him a Sean Penn. Which leaves Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle. Foxx will win for Ray because the Academy likes a depressing role, though up to a point.


This one’s tough to call. But I don’t think the Academy has it in them to give Foxx two Oscars the same year. Nor do I believe that Alan Alda pulls his weight in with the geriatric vote as much as he used to. (And, besides, his performance was too spastic.) Freeman’s role in Million Dollar Baby was a far cry from Street Smart and, as much as I like Freeman, let’s face the facts that it was pretty much the same performance he’s been giving us since The Shawhsank Redemption. Clive Owen is only a recent find. But Church has the Paul Giamatti guilt factor going for him, which will have the irony of making Giamatti feel worse for being snubbed if Church wins. Plus, there’s always at least one supporting winner that turns out weird.

BEST ACTRESS: Hilary Swank

Moreno and Staunton have no chance. Nobody remembers Being Julia. Eternal Sunshine is too abstract for the major Oscar nominations. But Hilary Swank has the Tom Hanks thing going. Everybody likes her. Plus, there’s the whole getting-in-shape-for-the-role thing. Plus, she’s a solid actor being molded by Eastwood.


Never mind that Madsen, Linney and Okonedo all deserve the award. Blanchett will win by way of giving the crowd-pleasing performance. And Portman will learn the hard way that taking off her clothes may win points with Internet downloaders, but doesn’t factor in at all with the Academy.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Because only in the writing categories does originality shine.


Because Daddy always said, “Runner up, son, is Best Screenplay.”

And the Angst Goes to…

While Gil Cates is a terrible director (prima facie: Oh God, Book II) and a spotty producer of televised awards ceremonies, and while we wish to make it clear in almost every way that we are not, by and large, Gil Cates fans, we must applaud his efforts to cater to the basest audience impulses by publicly shaming Oscar nominees. Apparently, Cates’ plans involve having some of the nominees schlep on stage, whereby the winners will step forward while the runner-ups will be forced to stand in darkness.

Walter Murch is the strongest opponent of the plan: “To apply some kind of PMI (People magzine index) to the nominees and make this the criterion for whether they get to go onstage or not and speak to the Academy is disgraceful to the Academy.”

Murchie, love your work on Coppola’s films and your Touch of Evil restoration, but I got news for you, pal: The Oscars are all about PMI.

We applaud this in the most strenuous manner. Catfights, bad fashion decisions, crudely uttered stump speeches and televised spats are, after all, what the Oscars is all about. Affluent, well-coiffed and vacant-brained starlets pulling hissy fits when they aren’t LUVED by the Academy (a term, we might add, which has absolutely no educational or platonic value) are what we watch this silly ceremony for. Between this and Chris Rock hosting, Cates seems to be gearing us for a fantastic televised shitstorm.

And the Nominees Are…

The nominees have been announced.

1. Spellbound was ignored in the Best Documentary category.
2. Granted, he was fun. But Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean?
3. The Triplets of Belleville doesn’t stand a chance against Finding Nemo.
4. City of God was a surprise. It’s up for cinematography, directing, film editing and writing. It’s also a Miramax film. So it was probably pushed like gangbusters.
5. A surprise Pollock win a few years ago and now a Mystic River nomination. The Academy really loves Marcia Gay Harden, don’t they?
6. Keisha Castle-Hughes for Best Actress in Whale Rider. She may be the youngest lead nominee ever. The kids are moving from the Best Supporting nominees (i.e., Anna Paguin for The Piano) to the lead roles.
7. Typically, the Best Writing category is the sympathy Oscar. So no surprise to see American Splendor, Dirty Pretty Things and The Barbarian Invasions ghettoized there (although the latter also scored a foreign film nomination).
8. Alec Baldwin in The Cooler — another surprise.
9. I feel sorry for any film up against Return of the King in the technical categories. It’s clear they don’t stand a chance.
10. A Mighty Wind up for Best Song!