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The Read Onion 

This news is real . . . funny

It's a sad commentary on the nation's interest in current events that so many people tune into John Stewart's "The Daily Show" on televison, night after night, as their sole source of fake news. Any responsible citizen knows that a healthy diet of fake information about the day's critical fake issues must come from multiple sources.

That's why I also read the parody newsweekly The Onion, some of whose writers are presenting "The State of The Onion Address" this Saturday as part of the Burlington Book Festival. In print since 1988 and available online - - since 1996, The Onion helps me stay abreast of non-happenings in the world, nation and even my own community.

Think Globally, Smirk Locally

The world has changed dramatically since the Berlin Wall came down and the Internet came up. Thanks to The Onion, I've been able to keep close tabs on the most pressing international affairs, such as 2004's global economics item, "World Bank Forecloses on World Farm."

A quick scan of the past few years' headlines tells the story of nations navigating a new world order:

* In the republics of the former Soviet Union -"Vladimir Putin Begins Second Term as Whatever He Is," and "Nobody in Ukraine Notices Absence of Government"

* In the war-torn Middle East - "Prohibitively High Rocket-Fuel Prices Bring Mideast Crisis to Standstill" and "Radicals, Extremists Vie for Control of Iran"

* In the sweatshops of Asia - "Chinese Employers to Grant 15-Minute Maternity Break"

* And in Western Europe - "Spaghetti-Os Discontinued as Franco-American Relations Break Down" and "Pope Condemns Three More Glands"

The Mirth of a Nation

The news media is supposed to provide a check on unbridled power, and no fake news source takes that responsibility more seriously than The Onion. While real news outlets have shrunk from holding our nation's leaders accountable, The Onion has leveled its critical gaze with neither fear nor favor. They broke the story that "Documents Reveal Gaps in Bush's Service as President" and the recent report that "Bush's Approval Rating of Other Americans Also at All-Time Low." It was also in The Onion where we first learned that "Bush Urges Nation to Be Quiet for a Minute While He Tries to Think."

With zeal and vigilance, The Onion staffers canvas the nation for hard-hitting non-news items:

* "Desperate Small Town Erects World's Largest Fiberglass Chili Dog"

* "Laid-Off Zoologist Goes on Tranquilizing Rampage"

* "Weather-Weary Nation Not Surprised by Forecast of Blood Storms"

Articles also probe the workplace - "New PSA Reduces Accidental Staplings By 33 Percent"; campus life - "MIT Fraternity Accused of Robot Hazing"; the classroom - "Educational Puppet Pelted With Crayons"; and ordinary American neighborhoods - "Dog Experiences Best Day of His Life for 400th Consecutive Day."

Keeping the Beat

For fake technology and science reporting, The Onion has no rival. Earthlings may live to thank reporters for the dispatch, "Hunter-Soldier From Future Warns: 'Beware the Digital Pets.'" The Onion also got the scoop that "Rogue Scientist Has Own Scientific Method" and "Wonder Drug Inspires Deep, Unwavering Love of Pharmaceutical Companies."

Not even the Al Gore-narrated film An Inconvenient Truth illuminated these consequences of global warming conveyed in an Onion infographic:

* "Led by circus-educated seals, wild seals will rise up and rule Earth"

* "Even fewer opportunities for snowmen to magically come to life"

* "When depicted in cartoons, sun will have angry face instead of smiling face"

But money makes the world go 'round, which is why The Onion's brief on "Misinterpreted Foreign Business Gestures" is required reading for savvy business travelers. How else to avoid misunderstanding that in Nigeria, "Eye contact in restroom legally transfers bicycle ownership"; that in Germany, "Shaking your head communicates 'I was unimpressed by your avant-garde one-man show last night'"; and that "While both fists thrust forward with the index and pinkie fingers extended means 'Metallica!!!' in North America, it means 'Sepultura!!!' in Central/South America and 'Turbonegro!!!' in Europe."

Stateside, The Onion heralded the news, "Halliburton Given Contract to Rebuild Cheney"; "U.S. Holds Going-Out-of-Business Sale"; and "GEICO Saves 15 Percent or More by Discontinuing Advertising."

In the world of sports, The Onion has its bases covered, reporting that baseball phenom "Alex Rodriguez Placed on Emotionally Disabled List," and that the Oklahoma Sooners college football team "had one of the best recruiting classes ever, with all 12,000 incoming freshmen receiving football scholarships."

In the arts, The Onion always makes the scene - from Chicago, where "Bluesman Announces 12-Bar Delay in Bringing It on Home," to New York City, where "NBC Unveils New 'Please-See TV' Thursday-Night Lineup," and into Earth's orbital space, where a reported "47 Percent of Satellites Currently Monitoring Celebrity Parenting."

Local Angles

So exhaustive is The Onion in its non-coverage of non-news that even the Queen City shows up on its radar. While the local media brimmed with back-to-school items, The Onion dug deep, reporting from Burlington that "College Student Does Nothing for Tibet Over Summer" and "Guy on Couch a Friend From Out of Town, Roommate Reports."

Vermont's left-leaning denizens may have been shaken by the non-news that "Peace Activist Has to Admit Barrett .50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Is Pretty Cool," and heartened to read, "Michael Moore Honored With New Ben & Jerry's Flavor." Dubbed "The Waffle Truth" after Moore's former TV series "The Awful Truth," the flavor, were it real, would surely appeal to liberal taste buds. For fake newshounds, though, a daily helping of The Onion is enough to satisfy a hunger for first-rate, First Amendment humor.

Lit Fest Organizer Admits Web More Fun than Books

BURLINGTON - A ranking organizer of the Burlington Book Festival admitted at a press conference Tuesday that she finds surfing the World Wide Web more enjoyable than reading books.

"It's a no-brainer," Festival President Miranda Earnshaw told a group of reporters at ECHO at the Leahy Center. "Would you rather slog through a dusty page of dense descriptions and existential angst, or watch hamsters in huge sunglasses dance across a screen? Plus, have you ever tried to look like you're working while reading a novel?"

Earnshaw's disclosure came in response to questions about why writers from the parody print and online news source The Onion - and not someone who has actually written a book - are scheduled to speak during the festival's coveted Saturday-night slot on September 16.

"I mean, let's face it, books take a long time to read," Earnshaw said. "Even longer if you stop to look up the words you don't understand."

When asked about statements in festival press releases and on its website urging vigilance in preserving book reading in the digital-media age, Earnshaw, a libraries administrator in the Burlington school district, said she didn't think anyone would read them. "Anyway, all that probably had more to do with some stuff I've been going through at work," she added. She declined to elaborate.


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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen is a contributing writer for Seven Days and Kids Vermont. He is also a professor of rhetoric and digital storytelling at Champlain College.


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