Good Joke Gone Bad

A headline from the Palo Alto Daily News last week read "Bush: 'Dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier.'" This must be a joke, thinks the reader. But it isn't.

The world is a weird place. Sometimes it is difficult to discern between the New York Times and the Weekly World News (this week's headline: "Alien Blob Ate My Truck"). Perhaps we newshounds here at AlterNet, our noses buried in magazines, forgot how truly bizarre the news can seem when pro wrestlers are elected governor and Congress is mired in debates over human cloning. Maybe we've become inured.

At any rate, we found Deanna Swift's Leaked Memo Reveals WTO Plan to 'Sell' Itself to American Youth" sufficiently ludicrous. We sat around and chortled over it, congratulated the writer on her over-the-top humor, and gleefully anticipated our readers' delight with this comical gem that simultaneously pokes fun at the media and everyone's favorite villain, the WTO.

"They'll get it," we assured each other. Who could really picture Mike Moore on late night TV, spouting hip neoliberal propaganda in between stupid pet tricks? Or Sarah Michelle-Geller finding time to promote TRIPS agreements in between Maybeline commercials? Or, most preposterous of all, that the WTO would take any time away from its busy schedule to concern itself with what American youth think anyway?

But it appears we "misunderestimated" something: the credulous horror with which much of the left regards today's conservative, neo-liberal moguls.

Writes one irritated reader: "The problem with trying to satirize the WTO is this: it's already so ridiculous, how do you separate truth from fiction? I wouldn't put it past the forces of corporate [globalization] to try something like this."

Says another: "I read so many weird things I don't know what not to believe anymore."

Apparently, we believe corporate power capable of anything, no matter how dastardly or unfeasible. Sure the WTO could use sly marketing tactics to co-opt our kids. Like the article says, "What can you expect from an organization that thinks it's fine for 4-year-olds to make footballs and carpets?"

But what made our readers really steamed is not the satire itself -- the comments were not from literary critics -- but that it was published by AlterNet, a news source. Says one posting on our related discussion board: "I think the WTO brand idea was a little too plausible to be presented with a straight face. Yes, it's ridiculous to reasonable people, but corporate marketers are not reasonable in the conventional sense. They live in a very odd world indeed, where black is white, right is wrong, et cetera. I think people reacted with alarm because they are used to getting the straight story from AlterNet."

Readers who believed the article distributed it to friends, family, co-workers, and even other publications. When they learned that the story was a satire, they were faced with the embarrassing prospect of retracting any related assertions, thereby weakening their credibility. Given the sci-fi, conspiracy-theory, paranoid-fantasy quality of much true news, credibility is the Excallibur of the left -- a powerful weapon too often undermined by the dismissive right. Disgruntled readers felt that we betrayed not only them, but the progressive cause. What we perceived as a joke (ha ha funny) became a dangerous hoax: "This hoax weakens the movement when misinformation -- even in the guise of satire -- is mixed with real news. This can certainly be used against the movement."

Point taken, but does this mean the experiment was a failure? Is this article without redemption? Absolutely not.

Jessamyn Wes once said, "Fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures." This certainly holds true for satire, which, as one reader pointed out, "marries the ridiculous to the plausible." By upping the ante on reality we are able to break out of our assumptions and common perceptions. It can be refreshing, even cathartic, especially in breaking down the stodgy correctness of the powers that be. Affirmed one respondent, "Publishing a good mockery is well in keeping with [AlterNet's] mischievous anti-establishment vibe."

For those who recognized the piece as satire, its witty approach to a serious subject was welcome: "Clearly this article makes AlterNet approach the precipice of greatness."

Another reader who advocated for more -- but clearly labeled -- satire wrote, "Keep us on our toes, keep us thinking, and make us aware so we can recognize it if we see it, or at least view things with a skeptical mind."

It is the skeptical mind that we hoped to cultivate with this piece. Our unquestioning faith in the unscrupulousness of the WTO and like organizations is not healthy. One post in the discussion section admitted, "I wanted to believe the story was true ... maybe I'm too angry to be objective." We can't afford to let our anger and disillusionment make us gullible -- it is our ability to question, to double check, and to avoid simplistic, black and white thinking that gives us strength.

However, context, as one reader reminds us, is everything. The flood of emails has vociferously informed us that those who visit our site do so for its credibility: "If I wanted this kind of thing, I'd read the Onion..."

So while we haven't abandoned satire, we promise to let you know what we're up to in the future.

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