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Onion‘s Chinese Buyout Spoof Peels Back American Anxieties, or Something

onionchineseOn Monday, The Onion underwent a rebranding that made Newsweek‘s look like small potatoes. The satiric paper made some big changes: the slogan was changed from “America’s Finest News Source” to “America’s Finest News Source and Salvage Fishery;” the paper’s green color scheme was replaced with red; they added a fish radical to the logo. It was now a subsidiary of Yu Wan Mei, an “Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injections Corp.” In a letter from the editor, antiquated Publisher Emeritus T. Herman Zweibel announced that he “sold The Onion and all of its various holdings to a syndicate of industrious China-men from the deepest heart of the Orient.” Editorial content plugged nutritious fish by-products, scolded the weakness and decadence of Americans, and proclaimed China to be great.

It was all a spoof (duh), and a very well-executed one at that. The jokes occasionally lean on Charlie Chan-ish chopped syntax gags, but for the most part the writing is very sharp. Last week, an Onion ‘tipster’ even juked Gawker into writing up an ‘exclusive’ on their impending sale. Digg loves the issue even more than usual.  Since it’s obligatory to quote Onion headlines whenever you write about The Onion, here are some of the best: “Internet Adds 12th Website;” “Potato-Faced Youngster Lauded For Memorizing Primitive 26-Character Alphabet;” “Clear American Sky a Constant Reminder of Industrial Inferiority.”

If you haven’t heard, The Onion is pretty good at this whole satire thing. The paper won a 2008 Peabody Award for their Onion News Network video content: “their send-up of 24-hour cable-TV news was hilarious, trenchant and not infrequently hard to distinguish from the real thing.” But the paper has had its troubles, which is why the viral sale rumors had the legs they did. In May, The Onion shut down its West Coast editions in LA and San Francisco; in an internal memo, Steve Hannah said “the advertising in both cities has been abysmal.” Free papers, even fake ones, have been brutally punished by the economic downturn; the China spoof is as daring as it is because it jokes about something close to the survival of the paper and the jobs of its writers.

Americans tend not to like it very much when foreigners buy our companies, which is why it touches a nerve when the Japanese buy Columbia Pictures or the Germans buy the Springfield power plant, much less when the Chinese buy a big chunk of the Cleveland Cavaliers (!). These fears are often overblown; competent investors buy businesses for their cashflows, not for fuzzy soft power.

Media people like to tell themselves that media is different, but for once it’s actually true. The media business is the soft power business. US buyers got flak for encroaching on the editorial independence of China, for its part, recognizes this in its “existing ban on private and foreign investment in its media sector.” Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú’s huge stake in The New York Times really is a troubling thing, because it threatens to muzzle one of the only franchises in the world big enough to critically cover him. Though they haven’t yet made any big moves in the U.S., Chinese investors have recently been dipping their toes in British media space. The money quote from that last link is that “Ye’s reported purchase coincides with a drive by state media companies to expand overseas as part of efforts to improve China’s international image.”

In this light, how different is the latest Onion joint from the standard late-night show “gee, China is going to buy us all some day?” schtick? Maybe not so different, but more thoughtfully put. Nutritious fish by-products are easy enough to laugh away and Digg with an “LOL” comment. But with media companies beggared and Chinese investors as likely as any to step in, people may look back on this as yet another another eerily prescient Onion piece a few years down the road. Even potato-faced youngsters can see where

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