On June 14, news outlets across the country gave the nation its first glimpse into Casa Padre, the converted Walmart in Texas holding immigrant children separated from their parents, after a small group of reporters toured the secretive facility.
That same day, the satirical news website the Onion ran its own article: “Immigrant Child Still Hoping To Achieve American Dream Of Better Cage.”
“Savage. I chuckled, but this is savage,” one online commenter responded.
“Too far, Onion. Shameful. How dare you mock people’s lives, the very real pain and fear people — including infants and children — are feeling?” wrote another.
Few issues have highlighted the dark nature of America’s current cultural wars like the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents caught illegally crossing into the United States, which drew such outrage that the president, in a rare turnabout, halted the practice with an executive order.
The crisis continues to play out, as questions remain over whether and how thousands of immigrant children will be reunited with their families. An estimated 100 children — most of them younger than 9 — have reached the Los Angeles area. Last month, California regulators vowed immediate inspections of the facilities and foster homes housing them.
Few publications, traditional or satirical, have covered the issue as unflinchingly as the Onion.
Among its recent headlines:
— ICE Agent Trying To Think Of Fun Name For Jail Cell Before Locking Up Immigrant Child
— Exasperated Huckabee Sanders Reminds Press Corps That Children Under 14 Can’t Feel Pain
— ICE Agent Decides He Wants Kids After Seeing Incredible Love And Devotion Of Parents Begging Him Not To Take Their Child
Even in an era when the president rails against “fake news” and real headlines are shared with the caveat “Not the Onion,” the publication’s recent, biting immigration stories, which carry no byline, have elicited a collective “oof” from readers.
Scores of online comments praise the writers for not pulling any punches with their dark humor, while others say joking about children being taken from their parents is going a step too far.
Still others have criticized the Onion, saying it has become too political, that its articles are just a relentless critique of Trump and his policies.
David Ford, a spokesman for the Onion, said the writers typically “let the satire speak for itself” and don’t comment when a topic is still in the news.
In a brief, recent interview with Poynter, Onion editor in chief Chad Nackers said of child separation that “there’s nothing funny about what’s going on.”
“It’s a satirical commentary on things, rather than, ‘Let’s laugh about it,’” he said.
The publication is known for its ability to satirize even the darkest of events. Days after 9/11, the Onion ran an article titled “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule,” in which an emotional deity gives a press conference near the Twin Towers and decries ideological zealotry.
After major mass shootings, the website runs the same headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” It goes viral each time.
“It wouldn’t be OK if we were laughing at the victims. That would be mean-spirited,” said Amber Day, author of “Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.”
“Satire is not about being dismissive or snarky about something, but it’s actually about doing good critique and good analysis and cutting to the heart of an issue or pointing out hypocrisy or inconsistency in a particular policy.”
A day after ProPublica released a seven-minute recording of children separated from their parents at the border, the Onion ran a scathing piece about Stephen Miller, a White House senior advisor: “Stephen Miller Furious At ProPublica For Only Releasing 7-Minute Recording of Immigrant Children Sobbing.”
“It’s unacceptable that this so-called news organization saw fit to foist this total tease of a clip on the American public,” Miller says in a made-up quote.
The article, Day said, nearly made her cry because, from the writers, “you can tell it’s coming from a place of real horror and real upset about what’s happening. There are a lot of people in the country who are feeling that horror.”
On immigration and other hot-button issues in this fast-moving news cycle, the Onion has stood out for its agility, responding to news stories practically in real-time and faster, even, than late-night comedy shows, Day said.
The Onion’s staff has spoken openly about the difficulty of satirizing Trump, whose actions and rhetoric often are so exaggerated they seem like hyperbole.
Even this hardly seemed real but was: In 2013, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, sent the Onion a furious email, demanding a retraction of a spoof article published under Trump’s name: “When You’re Feeling Low, Just Remember I’ll Be Dead in About 15 Or 20 Years.”
“The article is an absolutely disgusting piece that lacks any place in journalism; even in your Onion,” Cohen wrote in the email, which Ford, the publication’s spokesman, said on Twitter was authentic.
Ben Berkley, the Onion’s former managing editor, told The New Yorker that, in satirizing Trump, writers have a rule: “Stay away from low-hanging fruit,” such as making fun of Trump’s appearance.
“The Onion is much better at irony and wit than invective,” said Michael Seidel, an emeritus professor of literature and humanities at Columbia University who has written extensively about satire. “Calling Trump’s hair orange is just invective. It’s not witty. It’s not clever. Nobody finds it really intellectually engaging.”
“Satire works best not by butchering but by a very, very subtle slicing,” Seidel said.
Most people who are the subject of satire don’t have the capacity to understand why they’re being lampooned, Seidel said. They blame others for their own actions, he said, pointing to Trump’s blaming of Democrats, the media and others for child separation as an example.
Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at Temple University and author of the book “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News,” said satirists are able to say pointed things that journalists can’t.
“The question now is whether the whole model of disinterested observation is appropriate,” he said. “Are journalists allowed to engage in moral language? Can you cover children separated by their parents in neutral terms?”
Citing Trump’s recent reference to immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and Africa as coming from “shithole countries,” Baym said that “when you’ve reached a moment when newspapers have to debate printing the words the president said, then we need satirists more than ever.”
“We’re living in absurd times. Satire may be more equipped to deal with the absurdity than traditional media.”