Satirists fight fake news, give people something to laugh at

By Zoë Eitel, Managing Editor

Wesley Herold
Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” radio show, led an April 28 conversation at Columbia on satire in today’s political climate with The Onion’s Chad Nackers, head writer, and Ben Berkley, executive editor.

“We are the antidote to fake news,” said Alan Miller, president of the News Literacy Project, explaining its mission and noting its founding in 2008 preceded the coining of the term “fake news.”

NLP, a nonpartisan nonprofit that creates software and other materials to educate middle and high school students on how to tell fact from fiction in the news, hosted a VIP breakfast April 28 at Columbia titled “Fake News, Alternative Facts and Microwaves: We’re Just Trying to Keep Up!”

Discussing satire’s relationship to politics, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” Chad Nackers and Ben Berkley, head writer and executive editor at The Onion, were featured speakers.

Sagal emceed the conversation, which examined The Onion’s creative process and the Trump administration’s impact on its humor. Nackers joked that there used to be an “element of sanity” in the world and that Trump would have been a joke to them a few years ago.

According to Berkley, the April 28 statement to Reuters that Trump thought being president would be easier than his previous jobs struck Onion writers as the kind of thing “we would come up with.”  

“Trump says such crazy and deceitful things,” Nackers said. “It’s hard to play with that part. It sounds like you just copied and pasted things he said [into an Onion headline].”

As a result, the Onion has to be more careful with how it is satirizing news, Berkley said. People consume news differently right now because of the circulation of fake news, so although nothing is off limits to satirize, the staff will deconstruct every joke they are making, so they aren’t on the wrong side of an issue or making a situation worse, he noted.

“Our goal is never to trick people,” Berkley said. “We write smart satire for smart people. It’s upsetting when people don’t get that.”

Everything The Onion writes about is based on a nugget of truth, and a story and headline will be eliminated if it is not based in reality, Nackers said. Sagal said the same is true for his radio show, a comic quiz show that challenges panelists to figure out which of three purported news stories is actually true.

Though The Onion’s work is based in reality, the goal is to give people something to laugh at rather than to create change in politics, Berkley said, adding that it is also about weeding out stupidity.

“Millennials have a sophisticated sense of humor,” Nackers said. “Millennials want a joke that says something.”