Silly me. I thought cable TV news was beyond mocking. After all, once you’ve watched Nancy Grace in action, parody and satire don’t seem to stand a chance.
But then along comes The Onion to prove that theory wrong. Those masters of subtle snark, who made their mark a decade ago by aping the inanities of newspapers and last year sent up radio news with a hilarious podcast, now are taking aim at CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
Easy targets, for sure.
“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” got there first, of course, and scores of Internet sites and YouTubers have tried their hand at faux newscasts since.
The difference: The “Onion News Network” does it best—by a long shot.
In the month since “ONN” videos were added to The Onion’s Web site, there hasn’t been a flop yet. Then again, creators aren’t flooding the site with one-joke bits. They’ve posted just nine videos, each “report” about two minutes in duration.
It’s a wise move. Truly funny satire takes time and just the right subject matter. Plus, the verisimilitude of the set, the anchor banter, the graphics and news crawl must be exacting. That’s why the “live reports” from “The Daily Show” correspondents are sometimes hit and miss, saved only by the studio-audience response.
The Onion has no such safety net or laugh track. But it doesn’t need one. That’s because big laughs, while always welcome, aren’t the only goal. Implicit in each report is a commentary—check that, an indictment—on the state of the media.
Take, for instance, the recent report, “Breaking News: Something Happening in Haiti.” A better swipe at the knee-jerk reaction of cable news stations to “developing stories” has yet to be produced.
The video opens with high-cheekboned, elegantly coiffed anchor Lane Everett telling viewers that there is “breaking news” from Haiti, with reporter Don Abrams on the “sat phone” from Port au Prince. Immediately, we see a map of Haiti with a bull’s eye on it and the photo of the correspondent doing the talking.
Abrams tells Everett the streets are “clogged with people” gathered “by the presidential palace.” Everett (making a statement, not a question): “So it’s a protest of some kind.”
In seconds, the graphic changes to “Protest in Haiti.”
Then Abrams tells her that “people are chanting, `He is great.’”
Symbols crash and music starts. Everett, brow furrowed, says, “Election results ... a historic day for the people of Haiti.”
But wait. Abrams tells Everett the crowd is “hoisting a soccer player” in celebration. Cut to Everett: “Amazing soccer victory in Haiti,” followed by a “Sports Update” graphic.
And on and on it goes, with Everett changing stories as soon as Abrams says something contradictory. At one point, he uploads video from a cell phone, showing people milling about. Everett calls it “an out-of-control riot ...”
It gets even more absurd when the studio briefly loses contact with Abrams, and the folks in graphics, assuming he’s dead, put up his tombstone—“Don Abrams: 1968-2007.”
By the end of the report, neither Abrams nor Everett can decide what is going on. Could be a coup. Could be a party. Everett signs off by saying, “Thank you very much, Don Abrams. Stay safe or enjoy the festival.”
Some of the other cable-news staples that ONN has turned on their heads: A pundit show featuring absurd topics, such as “Do you remember life before the Segway?” and a bogus medical report, “70 percent of all praise sarcastic.”
The genius is in the details. The set, replete with flashing TV monitors and sleek furniture, screams cable-news pomposity. The graphics, whoosing sound effects and over-the-top theme music adds to the aesthetic.
And The Onion leaves no cable-news convention unexploited. The news crawls are hilarious. One offering: “New federal law forbids people convicted of bestiality to live within 2,000 feet of a zoo.”
Gee, you know, I think I may have actually seen that last story on Nancy Grace’s show.
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