The Onion's Ben Berkley on Why Fake News and Satire Aren't the Same Thing

Ben Berkley is a headliner for the 2017 Bird City Comedy Festival in Phoenix.EXPAND
Ben Berkley is a headliner for the 2017 Bird City Comedy Festival in Phoenix.
Jimmy Hasse of The Onion

Ben Berkley just realized he might have become what many native Arizonans most despise: a snowbird.

The managing editor of The Onion and co-founding editor of its sister website ClickHole once called Tempe home. Now, he is like every other Midwesterner who comes to visit from the Windy City when the weather in Phoenix is not ludicrously hot. This time, he would like you to pay some money to see him on his upcoming visit to the Valley. Berkley will be peeling back the layers of “America’s Finest News Source” to provide a behind-the-scenes look of the satirical publication that gave us the headlines “Holy Shit! Man Walks On Fucking Moon” and “Kitten Thinks Of Nothing But Murder All Day.” He’s still working on the presentation for the Bird City Comedy Festival, but you can expect fun and PowerPoint slides. He insists there are also moral reasons why Phoenicians should attend.

“This is a thing where anyone who does not attend Bird City Comedy Festival in any form are just vile people,” he says with a humorously hyperbolic tone. “They are the scum of the earth. This is something that has been put together to make my hometown a better place. I don’t wish good things upon those who do not attend.”

The Arizona State University graduate walks back his warning, afraid of what his family may think. His love for The Onion began when they brought home a copy of the book Our Dumb Century. He applied for an internship at the paper after working at the student-operated The State Press and soon he was helping to develop a book of his own: The Onion Book of Known Knowledge. He still cannot believe he has influence over the publication he has loved since he was a teenager and is honored to do so.

“Most of the people that work here now have grown up with The Onion, so now we get to protect it and advance it,” he says. “That is a responsibility we do not take lightly.”

Berkley spoke with the New Times from The Onion’s offices in Chicago about maintaining objectivity, his career path, and the headlines that hit too close to home.

New Times: When you were at The State Press, did you have any aspirations to work at The Onion?
Ben Berkley: It was something that always appealed to me. There are plenty of pictures of me wearing a high school wearing a shirt from The Onion. It’s a sensibility imbued in me at an early age. Even in college, it was not something I ever envisioned as a career path, which is probably how it became my career.

To a certain extent, [this career] finds you. At The State Press, we had our end-of-semester tradition where we would make The Stale Mess, a satirical version of the paper. I probably had more fun with it than the average person did. I don’t think I would have ever guessed in a million years I would have this job. Who gets the job high school you wishes you had?

How has it been difficult to maintain your objectivity over the last few months?
It has been a really big challenge. It isn’t about keeping our own politics out or maintaining any certain balance. Our concern is the volume of the discourse is so much to contend with. It’s hard to break through the noise and have any sort of original commentary in a world where the commentary is so bombastic and there is so much [content]. Everyone on Twitter is a comedian. In the past six and a half years I’ve worked at The Onion, there are so many television comedies that have been added to the mix. Comedy is at a saturation point. We’re fighting more against the industry and the tenor of our national discourse than we are against the actual administration, at least from where I stand.

What are you and The Onion doing to set yourselves apart?
Most comedy is taking what is happening in the world and layering comedy on top of that. With The Onion, we are essentially creating news events and using that as a means for that commentary, so we are already approaching things differently.

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One of our major internal codes on the creative side is that we want to make sure what we are doing feels that it is clearly commentary and understand what we are poking at. We want to make sure that our work is never derivative. Everything in The Onion is original and approaches everything from a fresh angle. That has its challenge when you are against so many other people making jokes.

I posted something on my Facebook page the other day from ClickHole. Of course, someone thought it was real, and I had to explain it came from a humor website. It was one of the moments when you realize satire can hit a little too close to home.
That has been very interesting for us. We’ve been getting lumped into this fake news debate, which feels off to us. Satire and fake news are not one in the same. It comes down to intent. The intent of a fake news article is accepted as truth by its readers. You are trying to gain power through exploiting the truth and exploiting people’s fears. It reinforces an ignorant world view. Our goal is to expose stupidity and shed light on the truth. Everything that we are doing has an insight to it. If people are taking those words at face value, then we have not done our jobs. A level of effort that people can’t possibly realize goes into every Onion article. There are finely crafted pieces built with the express purpose of sharing an insight.

Your parents are the ones who brought home Our Dumb Century. Are they thrilled they inspired this in you?
We’re giving them so much credit, aren't we? [laughs] It is in large part my parents and my family, but also the community that has formed my entire sense of humor and worldview. Those instincts that they helped to hone really came through for me. I appreciate it.

Arizona is always home. Everyone on the staff is so sick of me talking about it all the time. I don’t think they believe me when I say Arizona is a great place. That’s okay because where are they from? New Jersey? Vermont? New York? Are those places any good? Not really.

Ben Berkley is scheduled to perform Saturday, April 8, at Renaissance Phoenix Downtown as part of the Bird City Comedy Festival.

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