College of Arts and Sciences Dean Yohuru Williams promised an entertaining afternoon to those in attendance at the year’s opening First Friday, and speaker Mike McAvoy ’02 certainly delivered.
President and CEO of The Onion, one of the nation’s leading satirical publications, McAvoy leveraged the comedic nature of his company’s product to deliver his message amid plenty of laughter. Slides of past Onion headlines and videos underlined McAvoy’s discussion of the evolving role of satire in a nation struggling to establish collective truth.
“The goal of fake news is to be accepted as truth by its reader. Satire has precisely the opposite goal,” McAvoy said. “We use the tools of humor to ridicule ignorant worldviews and shed light on the truth.”
The recipient of a Peabody in 2008, The Onion has had a storied role over the past decades in helping the country use comedy to pierce difficult topics and discussions. An audience member highlighted the publication’s role after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as crucial, and The Onion’s role has become increasingly apparent in recent years.
“The divisive political climate allowed fake news to flourish. The Onion is important because it gets you to question those articles, beliefs, what you’re reading … and making you consider if they’re just confirming a bias or belief,” McAvoy said.
McAvoy pointed to the 2008 elections and the continued emergence of social media as the factors that started the country down a line it is continuing on, where personal beliefs and preferences are more easily confirmed because that’s the content that shows up in social media feeds.
“Satire, then, is a way to infiltrate people’s personal belief bubble,” he said.
Care is taken in determining which stories The Onion will use, McAvoy said: Some 1,500 headlines are pitched every week and only 30-40 are selected for use. The final stories are meant to be so ridiculous so as to be unbelievable, but McAvoy said some of the most important education for a person can come when they point to an Onion article as proof of their own belief, only to find out it’s satirical and made up.
A digital publication, The Onion’s articles often end up in spaces alongside truly “fake news.” The lessons its articles look to make – think critically about what you’re reading, what it’s saying and where it’s coming from – should be applied everywhere readers are consuming information.
“It’s more important than ever for people to take ownership of the information they consume,” he said.