What I remember most about the days after 9/11 was that nothing was funny. There was no joke to be made, no mitigating light remark to soothe the terror of such a sudden attack on such prominent landmarks—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—resulting in 3,000 deaths of ordinary Americans going about their regular lives.
And then the Onion came out, and offered the perfect story, under the delightfully deadpan headline, "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell."
With the dateline, "JAHANNEM, OUTER DARKNESS," it contained paragraphs like:
"I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67 virgins in a tree-lined garden, if only I would fly the airplane into one of the Twin Towers," said Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets, and live coals infesting his stomach. "But instead, I am fed the boiling feces of traitors by malicious, laughing Ifrit. Is this to be my reward for destroying the enemies of my faith?"I did not — and God, it hurts me to have to say this directly, but we seem to have come to that place — believe I was reading an actual news report about the eschatological fate of the 9/11 hijackers. The Onion is humor, parody. Yes, occasionally certain tone-deaf dolts would wave an Onion story over their heads in sincere alarm—Chinese government agencies seemed to be particularly prone to this—but that was part of the fun. People fell for this.
It was only after the recent presidential election, when the role of "fake news" in luring Americans to vote for the fraud and Russian puppet Donald Trump was being debated, did I pause to consider where The Onion and its ilk would fit in to this new landscape, with the deep credulity of our fellow citizens suddenly in all-too-clear relief.
Will The Onion be vetted as "fake news" and appropriately flagged so that readers who might think that Bill Clinton was actually dispatching vowels to the Bosnian cities of Sjlbvdnzv and Grzny, as the Onion reported in December, 1995, would not be led astray?
What a sad world that would be. How easily the perpetrators of fake news will either strip off the fake news designations or wrongly apply whatever little "IT'S REAL!!!" smily face that Facebook creates to reassure readers that what their reading has a relationship with reality. And what about the stretched, spurious, one-sided arguments that pundits — myself included, I am told — weave? Who decides?
Here's a thought. Instead of vetting the facts, why not teach people to be more skeptical? To have a baseline knowledge of history, science and current events. To be particularly dubious about reports that tickle their own biases. So you don't show up at a suburban pizza parlor with a gun looking for the child sex ring you've been told that Hillary Clinton, whom you hate with the burning white hot passion of a thousand suns, runs there.
Journalists have been trained to do this. "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out" to quote the famous City News Bureau edict. We can train the public too.
Yes, incredible stuff does happen, and there's little harm in saying, "Really? Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature? Says who?" I remember when I was told that a suburban bank president had put a note praising Hitler into his bank's newsletter. "Suburban bank presidents don't praise Hitler in their bank newsletters," I said, drily, at first. But I checked it out anyway. Turns out, this one did.
Consider the source. One reason fake news is thriving is that the Republicans, uncomfortable with the truth of their existence, have done such a good job of discrediting what is called with a sneer "the mainstream media." Even though that is the place most likely to reflect the living world. Which is why they hate it so. If there were a stranger sitting in your living room, and every day, as you came down the stairs to breakfast, he loudly announced, "You're ugly and on your way to do stupid things that will hurt your country," you'd hate him too, even if it were true. Especially if it were true.
That said, upon reflection, the idea of making people more skeptical is naive, because it is predicated on the notion—the flimsy notion—that people want to perceive the world as it actually is. When all evidence indicates the contrary: what they want is to dwell in whatever phantasm they find comfortable, and will not only decorate the walls with the baldest lies, but passionately defend their right to do so.
Where does that leave us? Carrying on as before, perhaps. Fake news has a value, as a parodic reflection of the world. It's fun. Last April 1, despairing of topping the previous year's announcement that "April is Puppetry Month," I considered not doing an April 1 post—besides, I was too tired of the blog.
Then I went with that thought, with a post headlined, "The End," announcing I was quitting. Every single since fact in the post was an outsized lie, from my claim to have 5,000 readers a day, to saying my column was praised by Carol Moseley-Braun, who despises me, to mentioning my column runs five days a week in the Sun-Times.
After it was posted, I heard from a number of colleagues I respect, giving their serious condolences, which surprised and horrified me. Including, the author of an important Illinois political blog, sniffing around in that I-smell-a-lie fashion we reporters have. Did I, he wondered, insinuatingly, really earn $10,000 a month from blog advertisements? I let him go on a bit.
"So let me get this straight,"I finally said. "You're asking me about something in my April 1 blog post? You read something I posted on the First of April, and you want to know if that April 1 post is factually correct? Is that right?" I kept saying versions of this, and eventually the truth sank in.
That's a beautiful phrase, isn't it? Eventually the truth sank in. If only we could hope that would happen with the American public. But it won't. Or at least it will take a long, long time. That is the truth here. A scary truth. Small wonder we're having such a hard time letting it sink in.