20 years ago, The Onion found a factual error on the internet
Pope John Paul II, Tara Reid and the Rolling Stones are in the news, and an Onion columnist sabotages Office Max.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit May 22, 2002.
Welcome to folks who read my longtime newsletter on workplace leadership. This weekly email is much longer, but I’m hopeful you’ll find some laughs and old memories.
Today, we look at an Onion issue that goes to extremes — a couple of truly classic stories, and some that have aged poorly or are about people/things we’ve forgotten about.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 38, Issue 19, the 103rd new Onion issue of the 2000s.
You’ll see above how The Onion used many of the same print layout techniques as regular newspapers.
We have the sidebar on the left-hand side with short news items and photos. There’s also the thin border around “Factual Error Found On Internet” to separate it from the adjacent headline. And every front-page article has what’s called the “jump,” or the cue to turn to an inside page to finish reading.
Two of the front-page headlines are no longer online. “Cartoon Prisoner Stands Holding Bars All Day” is funny enough, but I wish it had an illustration. We also have “Guy Upstairs Discovers Ska,” which I like to imagine was inspired by an Onion writer’s experience.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Pope Forgives Molested Children” is The Onion’s response to months of real-life scandal involving the Catholic Church. The Onion had only published “What Do You Think?” features where they asked fictional people what they thought.1
While some folks, understandably, might not want to read about this subject matter, there’s a lot to like in the writing and the tone.
This article relies on a common Onion trick: Write a regular story, but twist one or two details to make it absurd.
Here, we have the regular beats of a Church scandal article: Discussion of the wrongdoing, the wrongdoers, mortal sins and forgiveness. But the victims are the priests, and the seducers in need of mercy and forgiveness are the molested children. The great crime is not what’s done to the kids but that a child would tempt a priest!
As accused molester Father Thomas O’Malley says:
"The pope is saying that, in their own way, these sinful youths are victims, too. Through their absolution, he sends the important message that empathy, contrary to what naysayers and critics in the secular media would have us believe, does have a place in modern Catholicism."
The Onion goes a step further, quoting the most scandal-ridden American priest, Cardinal Bernard Law, as approving of John Paul II’s actions:
"Despite all they have done to jeopardize the careers of so many priests—to say nothing of imperiling the priests' immortal souls—the church embraces these underaged seducers and tempters with open arms.
The Onion is clear about what and who it’s mocking — not just this specific scandal, but how whistleblowers of all types are often vilified.
This story is also heavy on quotes, which adds to the illusion that this is a real article — that some Onion reporter traveled far and wide to interview all these people.
The article ends with quotes from an anonymous priest who is unhappy at this “secular humanism” and wants these “nubile sinners” punished. This is a great addition by The Onion for 2 reasons:
Reporters are eager to grant anonymity for people to make complaints
John Paul II was sometimes called too liberal in Catholic circles.
“Factual Error Found On Internet” might be one of the best headlines The Onion ever wrote. It’s simple, direct and timeless.
That said, when I was re-reading this story, the details of the story are really quaint!
The internet in 2002 was still mostly people on computers visiting websites, many of were not professionally designed but were instead templates with custom HTML and widgets. Even the “professional” sites can look amateurish in retrospect — check out Yahoo, which was the world’s most popular website in May 2002.
We just don’t spend that much time in 2022 on home-built websites compared to all the time we spend on phones, apps, video and audio.
It’s all in this context that “Ted’s Ultimate Brady Bunch Site” is exposed by local legal secretary Caryn Wisniewski as incorrectly listing when “The Brady Bunch” first aired. She does a surprising amount of research — calling ABC, the local library and former show producer Sherwood Schwartz — and successfully got the internet hosting company to remove the website!
Yes, in 2002, The Onion was writing about online cancellations and fears of misinformation!
20 years later, it’s hard to know how many real-life people really thought the internet was this magical, trustworthy place. But if they did exist, The Onion mocks them ruthlessly:
"Will we ever fully trust the Web again?" Boutin asked. "We may well be witnessing the dawn of a new era of skepticism in which we no longer accept everything we read online at face value. But regardless of what the future holds, one thing is clear: The Internet's status as the world's definitive repository of incontrovertible fact has been jeopardized."
Famous people doing things
“Handlers Desperate To Prevent Tara Reid Political Awakening” always made me laugh, not so much at Tara Reid but more at these frantic, worried handlers.
Sadly, this article ages poorly in part because Tara Reid’s career has never regained its early 2000s heights. “Sharknado” might be the biggest thing she’s done in the past 20 years.
The Onion treats Reid like she’s some powerful politician or executive who must be shielded from inconvenient truths. For example, Reid practices yoga but has no deeper thoughts about it, and Reid’s handlers have kept her from becoming aware of world hunger, PETA, the environment or politically charged acting roles — even when Reid starred in a Robert Altman movie with Richard Gere:
It was a dangerous situation to put her in, but by keeping Tara's trailer far away from Richard's and by frequently pulling her off the set for premieres, press junkets, and racy pictorials for Stuff magazine and Maxim, we managed to shield her from any potential indoctrination."
I don’t know how Hollywood stars are actually handled, but there’s a lot to satirize about the pampering they get. Poor Tara Reid, though.
In other news about real-life people, The Onion asked people on the street “What Did Bush Know Before 9/11?” — a reaction to the real-life news that President George W. Bush had been briefed on terrorist risks before 9/11. These jokes are typical political humor, but for whatever reason this one makes me laugh most:
"Whoa. Back up. Now, what happened on Sept. 11?"
Kenneth LeFlore • Electrician
There’s also “Struggling Airline Helped By Friendly Giant,” which is amusing and probably could have been a longer article. Urno the giant is helping American Airlines save money by running the planes to their destination.
Real-life CEO Donald “Carty said he has strongly discouraged Urno from swatting rival airlines' planes out of the sky, but ‘sometimes, he just won't listen.’"
It’s astonishing that the Rolling Stones are (mostly) alive and active 60 years on. “Rolling Stones Hit The Road” is about the 40th anniversary.
I think these jokes succeed or fail depending on whether you care about the band. I do not care about the Rolling Stones.
That said, I liked all the jokes about the Stones being greedy. $175 Rolling Stone-washed chinos sounds legitimate. I also enjoyed the idea of E*Trade’s real-life CEO not getting the tickets he wanted. And then I googled it — E*Trade was the tour sponsor! Nothing more anti-establishment and rock’n’roll than a brokerage sponsoring you.
Area People doing Area Things
“Man Who's 1/16th Irish Proud Of His Irish Heritage” tells the familiar tale of people adopting an identity even when it’s inauthentic. As someone in college in 2002, this also feels inspired by college bros in the early 2000s who worshipped “Boondock Saints.”
I’ll give Dennis Kroeger credit: He knows his Irish history, movies and books, and he decries the “green-beer Irish” overidentification with St. Patrick’s Day tomfoolery.
Even the 100% Irish, such as Padraig O’Riordan, see that Kroeger is overcompensating:
“But he probably doesn’t realize that what he’s really telling the world is that he’s desperate for an identity. I mean, I’m 100 percent Irish, but I don’t run around telling every single person I meet.”
The Onion ends the article with a great dig at people’s tendency to rank everything, even declarations of partial ancestry.
“I just don’t get what Dennis thinks is so thrilling about being part Irish,” Jessica said. “I mean, sure, it’s nice, but it doesn’t exactly make you exotic. My boyfriend, now, he’s 1/8th Cherokee.”
Other Area People stories include:
“Same Jumbotron Used For Marriage Proposal Used To Ask For Divorce”: Yes, it’s very sad that the marriage is disintegrating. However, "BUT LATELY I'M JUST FEELING TRAPPED AND SMOTHERED BY MARRIED LIFE. DIANE, WILL YOU BE MY EX-WIFE?" is a great Jumbotron message.
“Area Man Urinating Like It's The Best Thing Ever To Happen To Him” is a great headline. Really doesn’t need a story.
“Retarded Child Gets New Video Game Right Before Every Dinner Party”: I’ve talked many times about how this word was used in 2000-02 in serious contexts, such as the New York Times covering a Supreme Court ruling on a death row inmate. This is … not one of those serious contexts. The Onion also loved PlayStation 2, as this has to be like the 10th mention since I started writing this newsletter.
“Fat Couple's Love Like A Fat Flower” is a lazy joke. You don’t have to dislike jokes about people’s weight to know this isn’t high art.
Were the infographics good?
“How Have We Brought Shame To Our Grandparents?” is, well, a tremendous example of how to do stereotypes without being a jerk. Yes, it’s stereotyping old people, but it’s more of an abstract notion of grandparents, not a named group.
My only quibble: “Acquired own worldview” is more of a parental rebellion than a rebellion against grandparents.
“Home-Improvement Tips” is more of a list than an infographic. I really like this folksy bit of wisdom:
As they say, the three rules of house-painting are preparation, preparation, and painting.
My preference is for The Onion to have too many jokes in these features, rather than too few. A couple of the jokes really don’t work, but there are so many that you don’t care.
What columnists ran?
“I Know What I Should've Told That Judge” is about a man convicted of a felony (grand theft auto) and recounting the mistakes he made during his criminal trial.
This defendant made many mistakes. He was drunk when he stole the car (but didn’t tell his lawyer that). He didn’t heed his lawyer’s advice about not testifying, and he called the judge old while describing him with a 10-letter obscenity. So, he’s not a sympathetic figure.
That said, there’s one small section that reads differently in 2022. This guy believes he was additionally penalized simply for mentioning police brutality?
It would have been a lot better than telling the judge I wouldn't pull over because of all the police brutality I've seen on TV. Given another go, I definitely wouldn't say that again.
As a side note, this column almost feels timeless. But we’re reminded that this is the early 2000s because of the mention of the McDonald's Monopoly game, for which there had been fraud arrests in 2001.
“Offin' Office Max” is the latest column by one of my guilty pleasures, Herbert Kornfeld, a character so anachronistic that The Onion killed him off later in the 2000s. Kornfeld is an accounts receivable supervisor at a Dunder Mifflin-like office supply company, and he’s kind of like Michael Scott’s “Prison Mike” character but somehow more outlandish.
Kornfeld imagines that Midstate Office Supply and Office Depot have some kind of Tupac-Biggie blood feud going on. To be fair, Kornfeld committed actual corporate espionage a few years earlier against Office Max after it expanded into Midstate’s territory.
This section sums up H-Dog and also clarifies that he really talks like this:
Bringin' down Office Max wuzn't easy, but I did it. It wuz some o' tha hardest shit I ever had to do. I wuz livin' a double life, splittin' my time between Midstate an' tha Max. Tha three months I spent undacova as a O.M. cashier an' stocker could be a novel in an' of itself, mah homeys.
To fit in, I had to drop mah mad lyrical flow an' talk like a ordinary sucka. "Is there anything I can help you with, sir?" "Do you need assistance getting that to your car, ma'am?" "Will that be cash or charge?" "Thanks for shopping at Office Max, and have a great day." DAMN. I don't know how all y'all can talk like that.
Kornfeld also polluted the local water supply, triggering an EPA investigation that Office Max had to settle out of court.
This must have been such a fun column to write. There’s almost nothing you can’t have Kornfeld say or do because he’s such a cartoon character.
What was the best horoscope?
The Cancer horoscope is a delightful image this week:
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
As you look back on your life as a squirrel, your only regret is that you let others discourage you from pursuing your dream of waterskiing professionally.
What holds up best?
I like a lot of this week’s articles and jokes, but “Man Who's 1/16th Irish Proud Of His Irish Heritage” feels the most timeless. Lots of people are seeking an identity (understandably!), and this article also makes fun of people who are super-Irish only on St. Patrick’s Day.
What holds up worst?
The Onion went for some cheap jokes with insensitive language this week. I try to look at stuff like that through today’s lens and also, how funny was it 20 years ago? But I’m not sure those jokes were that clever or funny then, either. There’s no magical wordplay, topical satire or underlying message.
There are also multiple “Star Wars” jokes, both on the front page (“Ancient Melanesian Masks Thundered Past To Get To Star Wars Exhibit”) and a horoscopes reference. Those jokes aren’t bad or regrettable. But does anyone care about “Attack of the Clones” nowadays?
What would be done differently today?
The Onion, of today, as I’ve mentioned many times, is more focused on politics and pop culture and breaking news than it was in the early 2000s.
That’s not really about ideology or mindset. It’s simply a reflection that in 2002, The Onion was basically just a newspaper. Now, it’s a 24/7 website that also has to do social media, video, etc.
This is a labor of love that I’m thrilled to bring to you. Thanks for being here and for making it all the way through.
Next week, we hear about Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat’s relationship, Congress threatens to relocate, and it’s “crunch time” at the office!