You know your parody worked brilliantly when someone -- ideally a big someone -- doesn’t have a clue that it’s a parody.
The Onion did not, in Lincoln’s phrase, fool all of the people all of the time. But it evidently fooled more than a quarter of a billion people for some of the time -- the subscribers and Web readers of China’s Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, with more than 3 million subscribers worldwide and tens of millions of daily hits to its website.
This organ of well-scrubbed “information” reported as sober fact the Onion’s parody of People magazine’s “sexiest person alive” listing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as its own sexiest man alive.
To quote the Onion about the hottest dictator on Earth: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.” The Onion added Kim to the ranks of previous “sexiest” winners, among them Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Ponzi fraudster Bernie Madoff.
Did anyone up China’s editorial chain ever suggest that this dictator-emperor has no cool clothes, and no chic from the neck up either? No. The Chinese media ate up the praise for the country’s little buddy neighbor nation.
The Guangming Daily website also reported it with tongue somewhere other than in cheek. Here’s how an editor there, Wang Miaomiao, defended the story to the Associated Press’ inquiring reporter:
"Even if it was satire, the report itself was true. The content is not made up. Also, we have to go through a procedure to take something down from the website. In addition, it is not a fabricated report, and it does not jeopardize society."
Truly? If Kim is the new global standard of male sexiness, then society is not just in jeopardy, it’s headed for the physical = beauty fiscal cliff.
The People's Daily took down its uncritical account, although the Onion speedily put up a faux link to “the People’s Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc.”
The AP says that 10 years ago, a Beijing tabloid called the Evening News picked up the Onion’s “story” about Congress threatening to leave Washington unless it got a new Capitol building -- the way sports team owners threaten to up stakes and leave if they don’t get a new stadium.
On the other hand, maybe everything that happens in the U.S. is regarded as so outlandish that even the craziest stuff must be true. Because it so often is.
This happened to me once, in 1998, right after California voters passed Proposition 227, the initiative changing bilingual education. My column suggested deadpan that the measure, which required a switchover to English for students within about a year, would ultimately require the same conversion for Spanish-language names in California.
The mellifluously named Rancho Palos Verdes would become “Green Sticks Ranch,” Mariposa County would be "Butterfly County," the town of Caliente would become simply "Hot."
Several news outlets took it seriously and mocked us wacky Californians. A network news producer was sure my column was tongue in cheek, but her boss told her to call just to make sure.
The takeaway from this is that if China expects to become a global superpower, in the footsteps of the British empire or the United States, there’s one absolutely vital ingredient it’s missing, one that it absolutely must have: an ironic sense of humor about itself. No Chinese version of “Private Eye,” no “Colbert Report,” no world domination.