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Baratunde Thurston and civic satire

Baratunde Thurston, digital editor for The Onion, offers his advice on “How to Save the World With Satire”, a talk he encourages us to tag #civitunde. Before explaining his work as a civic media actor, he offers us a portrait of his background. His great grandfather Benjamin Lonesome was born a slave, taught himself to read and moved to Washington DC. One of his daughters was the first black female employee at the Supreme Court. She sent her daughter, Baratunde’s mother, to a private boarding school in rural Pennsylvania in 1948, “full of trees and white people, neither of which my mother was very familiar with.”

Baratunde’s mother wasn’t very pleased by this development and sent her mother a letter which read, in part, “I am having fun but I don’t like it here. I am mad with you.” At the bottom of the letter, in another hand, was the word “over” and on the back the message, “If your little girl is dissatisfied, we would be happy to have her bed for girls who would like to come.” This, Baratunde tells us, was the story that made him an advocate for net neutrality, because it’s pretty obvious some packets were being intercepted and expected.

His love for journalism comes honestly – his mother became the features editor of the high school newspaper, and later became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. His older sister is the digital news editor for the Lansing, MI newspaper. Baratunde tells us that she’s got his job, only he gets to be more honest. When he was celebrating the success of the Onion’s iphone ap (which is vastly more popular than iPhone aps for most “serious” newspapers), his sister got deeply upset. “You’re not real news!” she complained. “Now you’re just mincing words,” he responded.

Baratunde’s experiments in satire started early. He describes himself as a “muckracking honors student”, busted for seeking sources in the teachers lounge. When his Quaker high school (which also educated Chelsea Clinton, who he assures us got on well with the black students, perhaps due to her father’s saxophone prowess) began expelling students (tough for Quakers because each of us is the manifestation of God and expelling God from your school is hard to do), he created wanted posters demanding the arrest of the dean and the principal.

His time in Boston led to a career in standup comedy, and to his experiments with online media. (Baratunde tells us that he loves Boston but that it’s “rare to be in a place that so effectively hides its black population – I think the underground railroad is still operating.”) He had a show on Allston Brighton Free Radio, a community radio station with a broadcast radius of about a mile. “I would beg people who were listening to the show to call, just to see if anyone was out there. Eventually, I’d tell people that there was an emergency and I needed them to call and help me out.” But even with such light listenership in the Boston area, he began recording the broadcast from the sound board, converted it into an mp3 and put it on the internet as a rudimentary podcast.

Experiments online also led him into the world of political blogging. Jack and Jill Politics is a thriving “black oriented civic blog”, which found itself credentialed to cover the 2008 democratic national convention, which let Baratunde experiment with live streaming video from a mobile phone, taking questions for Van Jones and Gwen Ifill from the audience via SMS.

Somewhere his work moved from the deeply serious – a wiki to document instances of voter suppression – to the deeply silly. When swine flu “hit the media harder than it hit the human population, especially in early days”, Baratunde realized that there were three swine flu twiter accounts, “doing boring work, disseminating actual information.” His account, The Swine Flu, announced its location as “Fucking EVERYWHERE” and offered as a bio: “Bird flu ain’t got shit on me.” Combined with a catchy profile picture and a rich Facebook presence, and The Swine Flu really took off online. Soon his character was hosting “face licking” parties on Facebook and finding other ways to spread the viral message of swine flu, and inviting others to record audio for the page with their experiences of Swine Flu Face Licking gatherings. The peak of the Swine Flu’s success was a Huffington Post interview, in character.

Some of Baratunde’s best work is done under his own imprimatur, like his “live hate-tweeting”. He’s got some deeply personal reasons to hate the Twilight series of books and movies. “I read the first two books, as audio books, on a road trip with my wife. Shortly after, she was not my wife. I’m not going to say twilight ended my marriage, but I am going to say there’s a correlation.” Now when Twilight films premiere, he shares his hate with the world. “I sit in the back row of the theatre with a laptop and a wireless card and live tweet my hate.” This includes sharing pertinent questions about the series, just as a responsible media professional should: “If Bella has sex with Jacob, is that bestiality and can that be prosecuted in Washington state law?” The goal of the project is simple: “If I can reach one kid, get one kid off crack, get one kid to go to college…” And we see a tweet of a teenager telling Baratunde that based on his review, he’s not going to see the film.

This spirit of participatory parody doesn’t just extend into online space. Baratunde is a regular at Delicatessen in Soho, and when Foursquare entered the scene, rapidly became mayor. While most of his reign has been peaceful and unchallenged, a friend dared to question his rightful mayorship. They ended up agreeing to a month-long political campaign, which included a political rally, in which Baratunde extolled the restaurant’s virtues in the manner of a gospel preacher. “This went on for far longer than it should have” and led people to bring political posters, for and against his rule. One protester, an Onion coworker, stood on the corner with a sign that read “Jesus Hates #Baratunde”.

Not every project is fanciful – lately Baratunde has been traveling to the Republic of Georgia, learning about the governments’ plans to turn the country into an innovation and media hub. President Saakashvili has been bringing media innovators from around the world, and most of these visits end up with the President’s visitors drinking in Tblisi nightclubs and talking about media. That’s where Baratunde met the photographer who told him “Give me 50 Chechnyans and we can sort this whole thing out. These rebels have no discipline.” Baratunde points out that this is the sort of perspective that’s hard to get from television news. As a social media prankster, “It’s powerful to talk with people who are using YouTube not just because it’s funny, but because it’s the only way to get news out.”

Of course, what many of us wanted to hear Baratunde speak about was his work with The Onion, which he explains was established in 1756 in Boston as the Mercantile Onion. In 1783, it added the popular column, “Ben Franklin’s Inventions this week”. And he tours us through some of the paper’s journalistic milestones through headlines:

“Earthquake makes least gay day in San Francisco history”
“Kennedy slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons”
and the recent headline celebrating Obama’s election, “Black Man Given America’s Worst Job”

Sometimes Onion stories react to the narrative in the media, and sometimes they help predict it. The Onion ran the headline, “Mitt Romney Haunted By Past of Trying to Help Uninsured Sick People” about two weeks before Romney’s work on health insurance in Massachusetts was linked to “Obamacare” and became an issue in the Republican primaries.

And sometimes the Onion takes on the media directly. Baratunde shows us a wonderful video story about the Boston Globe revamping their paper to serve their remaining three readers. A dorm fire at NYU is easily traced to a dropped cigarette, because the fire investigators have 2,400 Facebook photographs taken by 25 iphones and 16 Blackberries to reconstruct the scene from.

Baratune’s department focuses on “Web, mocial and tablet things”. That often means that his team is responding to real, breaking news, launching stories that don’t go through the normal (painstaking) Onion editorial process. Some of these are big winners, like the reaction to Obama sharing his long-form birth certificate: “Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He’s Not A Festering Pile Of Shit“. Others are the product of advance preparation, lines readied in advance for events like the Oscars or the Superbowl.

While he doesn’t use the Henry Jenkins term “transmedia storytelling”, recent Onion projects focus on creating online buzz for stories released on cable television. A campaign to promote a story about capturing the semen of a dying racehorse led to the Twitter tag #horsemasturbation becoming a trending topic, a proud moment for Baratunde. Other viral campaigns have included #cutepiglet, a campaign associated with the story “Al Qaeda Attacks Internet with Photo of Adorable Piglet”, and the #500ftbinladen campaign, where the Onion’s reporting was quickly complemented by people’s own photos of a 500 foot monster undead Bin Laden attacking their cities. The triumph of this may be the Yelp review page, where 294 individuals have posted their reviews of the (fictional, Onion-created) $8 billion Planned Parenthood Abortionplex. The reviews are painfully funny, written in the character of the story, and generally too lewd for my blog.

Baratunde offers his comprehensive theory of how traditional media is encountering social media. The stages have “a” and “b” sections – what the mainstream media and the new media do at each point:

Phase 1a – the Pandering phase, where Rick Sanchez begs you to follow him and tell him what you think!
Phase 1b – the calling them out phase, where social media engages in heavy grassroots criticism of the mainstream media

Phase 2a – Crowdsourcing, where mainstream media demands you send in your photos of breaking news
Phase 2b – The realization that while having a flipcam doesn’t make you a journalist, it may make you someone who commits acts of journalism

Phase 3a – Recruiting the next media stars from the online space
Phase 3b – the Advanced Lab Work phase, using social media to share not just stories but the raw info and data.

This is all heading towards a world of networked storytelling, where peer to peer relationships between mainstream and new media organizations lead to something entirely new. This should be a rich space for satire, which Baratunde tells us, is key because when you make fun of power, you encourage power to behave in ways that are more legitimate. “That leads to better democracy, which leads to better humans, which leads to better sex.”

He closes with the current campaign – the demand for an #OnionPulitzer. “I know civic media is all about breaking down the walls of traditional media, but it’s still insulting that we’re celebrating our thousandth issue and we haven’t been graced with the Pulitzer.” He’s not alone – there’s an active campaign at Americans for Fairness in Awarding Journalism Prizes, where media heroes including Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass advocate for the Pulitzer committee to recognize the important work the Onion does.

2 thoughts on “Baratunde Thurston and civic satire”

  1. Pingback: links for 2011-07-01 | Beyond the Echo Chamber

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