A Chinese newspaper reports a joke straight out of The Onion.
June 26, 2002
Here’s another tale from the Don’t-Always-Believe-What-You-Read files. This one comes from the Los Angeles Times, where journalist Henry Chu found an interesting fact in a Chinese newspaper, a fact unknown to Americans.
The Beijing Evening News, the capital’s largest daily newspaper, published a story earlier this month by reporter Huang Ke stating that the U.S. Congress demanded a brand new Capitol to be built. The article claimed that if the congressmen didn’t get their new Capitol, they were going to pick up and move the federal government to another town.
Before the Chinese newspaper published the news, The Onion, “America’s finest news source,” had already published the story in its May 29 issue, titled “Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built.”
The story was a spoof on how major league sports teams whine when their hometowns hesitate to build brand-new, multimillion dollar stadiums. In The Onion article, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., was reported to say, “If we want to stay competitive, we need to upgrade … Look at British Parliament. Look at the Vatican. Respected institutions in their markets. But without modern facilities, they’ve been having big problems attracting top talent.” Gephardt’s quote also appeared in the Beijing Evening News story.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Onion, it’s one of the better newspapers covering the burning issues of our day, with post Sept. 11 headlines like “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule” and “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” The paper also refuses to shy away from expressing strong editorial opinions, with pieces like “Guns Are Only Deadly If Used for Their Intended Purpose” and “General Mills’ Star Wars: Episode II Cereal Gets It All Wrong.”
The article that appeared in the Beijing Evening News never made any reference to The Onion as the source of the story, even though direct quotes and an illustration for the new proposed “retractable-dome capitol” that ran with The Onion’s story also appeared in the reprinted version.
When Chu first contacted the Beijing Evening News about the snafu, Editor Yu Bin confirmed that he did not know the source of the story. He further stated, “How do you know whether or not we checked the source before we published the story? How can you prove it’s not correct?” To prove that it was not correct, Chu placed a call to an aide of Gephardt’s who confirmed that he never made any statement about demanding a new Capitol.
The Beijing Evening News later admitted that it had been hood-winked, but it never admitted to lifting the story from The Onion without quoting the source. It never copped to plagiarism. What’s even weirder is that the newspaper went on to criticize The Onion. Chu says that the Chinese newspaper apparently misunderstood the newspaper’s “mission as a purveyor of satire and laughs.”
The Beijing Evening News stated that “some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money. This is what The Onion does.” It also added that “according to Congressional workers, The Onion is a publication that never ceases making up false reports.”
Of course it makes up false reports. That’s what it does. That’s its job. It’s funny. The stories in The Onion are well-written. They resemble the style and feel of newspaper stories, but the subjects are generally so outrageous and the quotes are so perfect that it’s hard to imagine anyone being gullible enough to actually believe them.
But then again, maybe this is a cultural issue. Is there a Chinese sense of humor? I have no idea. I’ve never been to China. Is the absurdity of a government body demanding a new facility with a retractable dome only apparent to Americans? Or do some of us see that as a possibility?
Finally, while most reporting is intended to inform us about the news of our day, that does not mean that since it is in print that it’s 100 percent accurate. Journalists strive for accuracy – most of us – but we’re human. The greater difficulty is that truth is generally relative to where you’re sitting in the crowd and watching the play. The people in the cheap seats have a different view of Hamlet’s death than the folks in the opera boxes.
So where does all of this get us? Who knows? Who really cares? It’s just funny.