Has The Onion Gone Soft on Hillary Clinton in 2016? A Thorough Investigation

Politics Features Hillary Clinton
Has The Onion Gone Soft on Hillary Clinton in 2016? A Thorough Investigation

In January, news came that Univision had purchased a 40 percent controlling interest in The Onion. As The Intercept noted, the co-owner and chairman of Univision is Haim Saiban, who, along with his wife Cheryl, is essentially one of America’s top Hillary Clinton fanatics.

Saban and his wife, Cheryl, are Hillary Clinton’s top financial backers, having given $2,046,600 to support her political campaigns and at least $10 million more to the Clinton Foundation, on whose board Cheryl Saban sits. The Sabans are also generous supporters of the overall Democratic Party infrastructure, donating, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a total of $16.1 million since 1989 to Democratic and liberal candidates, party committees, leadership PACs, and federally focused 527s.

Saban badly wants Hillary Clinton to be elected president this year, vowing to provide “as much as needed” to see it happen, since “she would be great for the country and great for the world,” and “on issues I care about, [Clinton] is pristine plus.”

Putting aside the fact that “pristine plus” sounds like a character in a George Saunders story would describing a shiny new machine that beheads poor people, the Univision purchase seemed to many comedy fans like a conflict of interest. Saiban had a huge amount of influence when Bill Clinton was in office, and he stood to hold the same status under President Hillary, so why would he allow his own website to skewer her and potentially hurt the campaign?

We’re four months in to Univision’s reign, so let’s check in on The Onion’s Hillary coverage. Have they gone soft? I’ll attempt to answer that question using every HRC headline in the site’s “”Election 2016 section since January, when Univision made its play. We’ll start at the beginning:

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This one technically came out before the purchase went through, by about a week, but the writing was undoubtedly on the wall so I’m counting it. The headline here is a terrific example of what we’d see for the rest of the year—something that “skewers” Hillary, technically, but for a trait or behavior that we don’t really associate with her, which makes the comedy both toothless and harmless. Who on Earth thinks Hillary Clinton is boring? The people that don’t like her think she’s dishonest and ruthless and ambitious and corporatist and war-like, but boring? No way.

(Important digression: Political comedy of the sort The Onion deploys relies on negative perceptions of politicians. That’s what makes it funny. I’m not here to argue the merits of Clinton’s negative stereotypes, only to point out that they exist. Hopefully that’s not too controversial—it’s not like her perceived “weaknesses” are a big secret—and hopefully the comments section doesn’t devolve into another Sanders-Clinton flame war.)

I’m going to call this type of story a “red herring.” It hits Hillary in an area where she’s not vulnerable, and therefore has no impact despite a veneer of real satire. It’s a tricky way to go soft on a politician, but that’s exactly what’s happening.

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We’re now officially into late January, and the Univision era has begun. This is the first Clinton story since the purchase, and it introduces another strategy that we’ll see over and over—make the comedy about the campaign, and not the candidate. We’ll see this same basic story a few times: Clinton’s campaign is a sort of juggernaut that engages in harsh, militaristic strategy. I laughed at the headline of this story when it came out, and there’s a sharp edge here—the idea that the actual people of Iowa are disposable assets to Team Clinton, little cogs in the overall war for the presidency, and their individual fates don’t matter.

It’s worth noting, though, that the headline isn’t “Hillary Clinton Torches Iowa Town…” That would be a little funnier, and a little more personal, and if a dope like me can recognize that, it’s a sure bet that the writers are The Onion knew it too. There’s a reason they chose “the campaign” as a target, rather than the individual—it’s an indirect blow.

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This story, which ran on Jan. 31, is vintage Onion. With the implication that all of Clinton’s enemies will be murdered in some kind of horrifying purge, you can’t really argue that any punches are being pulled. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s personal, and it satirizes an element of Clinton’s personality that has come under fire before.

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It’s the return of the campaign-as-juggernaut trope, this time with a futuristic, apocalyptic element. Again, it’s kind of pointed—this is an evil, death star-esque movement—but it’s also diluted by the focus on the campaign rather than the individual. No other presidential candidate gets that treatment on The Onion, and the fact that the go to the well twice within the span of a few weeks for Hillary raises the question of whether she’s being treated with kid gloves.

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At this point, three of the last four so-called “Hillary” stories have actually been about the campaign. If you’re getting the feeling that the writers are trying to fulfill some kind of Hillary quota without actually saying much about the candidate herself, you’re not alone. To be completely fair, the text does mention Hillary as the one who encourages her team to leave the weak volunteer behind, but we all know that the headlines and the photos are the bread and butter of The Onion.

Also, we’ve gone a long time without any commentary on Clinton’s policies. That may sound like a strange complaint to make about a comedy site, but The Onion has a proud history of smart, issue-oriented political comedy. Take this story from mid-January, with its vicious headline: “Rubio Refutes Claim He Soft on Immigration By Dragging Undocumented worker He Knocked Out Cold Onto Stage.” Or this one: “Exuberant Trump Rally Crowd Bats Syrian Refugee Child Around Arena Before Candidate Comes on Stage.”

That shit is brutal! Meanwhile, even the story about Clinton murdering her non-supporters lacks any reference to her actual politics. The absence of that type of material, in the heart of a tense primary campaign, seems very intentional.

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I mean, The Onion can do what it wants, but damn—this one reads like it was written by Clinton’s campaign staff, or David Brock’s Blue Nation Review. Taken in a vacuum, this story wouldn’t be hugely objectionable—it’s making an argument that there’s a sexist double standard in American politics—but in conjunction with two months of soft coverage, it looks almost like pro-Hillary propaganda. It goes beyond fitting a pattern, and actually heightens that pattern. And look, maybe there are other examples out there of The Onion deliberately ripping a page out of a politician’s playbook, but I certainly can’t remember any. The whole thing just looks pretty cowardly at this point.

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Beyond the last story, when The Onion blatantly carried water for Clinton, you can start to see a specific tactic emerge: Negative stories must refer to monolithic campaigns, or allude to dark fate. What it must not do is target Hillary’s personality, or policies, or any of the actual weaknesses. In other words, stay away from the content that the writers use to brutally skewer the other candidates, and keep scoring those indirect blows.

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Same shit.

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What is this even supposed to be? Hillary as a robot? This is non-comedy. It falls under the “red herring” category, but it’s even worse than the “tap water” story because it’s so meaningless.

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This is the first story with any teeth since January, and the best example of Hillary-related satire we’ve seen from The Onion all year. The text even mentions actual political things, like her support for gay marriage and the Iraq War, her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and etc. Plus, it’s funny. I would watch a documentary on how this one slipped through the censors.

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I’m not running the photo for this one because I don’t know if I’m allowed to disseminate actual pictures of naked people on Paste, and I’m too lazy to ask, but it’s a very funny headline-photo combo which you can see here. I hesitate to criticize this story in any way, because unlike most of the Clinton content, it made me laugh. Still, for the purposes of this exercise, we have to note that rather than satirize Clinton, this one actually makes a move to humanize her. And if you took the shocking photo away, it would read like another weak-sauce attempt to create comedy without doing any real damage.

Compare that this one, about Ted Cruz: “Leather-Clad Ted Cruz Greeting Voters At Reno-Area Fetish Club.” That’s such a devastating, funny visual, and it works so well because it has a sort of instinctual accuracy—Ted Cruz really does look and sound like someone who would frequent a fetish club. Hillary does not seem like someone who would bare all in a bid for authenticity, and beyond the effect of the photo, it doesn’t resonate the same way.

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Boring, tepid comedy. Gross.

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Just like the “female candidate told to be inspiring” story, but without any kind of commentary on anything. This is so far below The Onion’s standards, and though I have no clue what goes on behind closed doors there, it seems very much like the effort of writers whose hands have been tied behind their backs.

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“Hey, remember all those other Clinton campaign stories we did? Yeah, let’s do that again, except this time, let’s make it even blander. I want to beat this dead horse, but in a softer way. I think readers will enjoy that.”

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Are they working from mad libs? Has the command come from on high that there is now exactly one kind of story that can be written about Clinton? “Something something Clinton campaign something something money.”

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Wakes up with a start at desk

Holy shit, a funny one.

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Wait, what’s happening? This one is funny and also has a little bit of bite. Not much, since this is Hillary, but a little. Which is better than nothing.

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Oh good, I was hoping for another “this campaign is a scary authoritarian juggernaut!” story.

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Vaguely funny, but another deflection-type post. That “hole-in-the-wall” story must have hit too hard, prompting a month-long hiatus in Clinton content followed by more timid crap like this.

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Two thoughts:

1. This is what their Clinton coverage should have been like all along. This story is actual satire, which is a standard that almost every other piece of HRC content has failed to meet in 2016.

2. I should have written this post yesterday, before that article went up, so I didn’t have to end on an example that goes against my central thesis. Dammit!

What conclusions can we draw? Well, there are definitely some incisive, funny Hillary Clinton stories in the list above, but when you consider the overall body of work, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. And the rule is simple: In 2016, Hillary has not taken The Onion’s best punch, either in relation to that site’s usual venom, its treatment of Hillary in the past, or its treatment of the other candidates this year. There’s no way to prove why this is happening, but the fact that it coincides with the Univision purchase should raise our collective eyebrows.

Let’s simplify the equation: We know that the new owners have an agenda, we know that agendas compromise comedy, and we know that in regards to Clinton, The Onion’s comedy has been compromised. Just because we can’t officially connect the dots doesn’t mean the dots aren’t connected.

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