It's the stuff of webby fantasy and urban legend: a reader who takes an Onion story seriously. Last week, a speedy and vicious blogosphere watched its collective wet dream made real when "Pete," proprietor of antiabortion blog March Together for Life, posted "Murder Without Conscience," a furious excoriation of a 7-year-old fake column in the Onion titled "I'm Totally Psyched About This Abortion!" [Ed. Note: The original "Murder Without Conscience" entry has been altered since its publication and now includes some graphic images.]
The Onion is a satirical newspaper founded in 1988 by University of Wisconsin students and is these days published weekly from New York. The piece that inspired Pete's July 6 extended smack-down was a 1999 Op-Ed by fictional columnist "Caroline Weber." Pete did not realize that the Onion traffics in satire, and that the piece was a send-up of the notion that pro-choice activists are actually "pro-abortion." Weber's outrageous claims that she "seriously cannot wait for all the hemorrhaging and the uterine contractions" and that "this abortion is going to be so amazing" did not tip off Pete. In an utterly unironic retort, he cited lines like, "It wasn't until now that I was lucky enough to be pregnant with a child I had no means to support," and "I just know it's going to be the best non-anesthetized invasive uterine surgery ever!" to illustrate his disgust with the author.
On his blog, Pete expressed his rage at Weber's claim that if her HMO hadn't bowed to pressure not to cover her oral contraceptives, she never would have gotten pregnant to begin with. "Sorry ma'am," Pete responded. "If you hadn't had sex you wouldn't have gotten pregnant, it's not the HMO's fault for not supporting your promiscuity while not married." And in case it wasn't already clear where he stood on the issue of satirical abortion, Pete added, "Miss Weber, you have killed your child, which you admit is a baby/human being, intentionally. That does make you an admitted murderer."
Remarkably, this isn't the first time that an Onion parody has been treated as straight news. In 2002, China's Beijing Evening News reported that members of the United States Congress were threatening to move operations from Washington D.C. to Memphis, Tenn., because the shabbiness of the Capitol building created "problems attracting top talent." A Chinese reporter had picked up the story wholesale from the Onion and filed it as his own. It was funny.
But 2002 was eons ago. Before everyone had a blog, and before viral linkage meant that a private humiliation, like not getting a joke, could become an instant spectacle that spread like a nasty and very noticeable rash. Reached by phone at his Virginia home a week after his initial post about the Onion story, Pete said, "You write some article off the cuff and throw it out there and you never know what's going to happen. The next thing I know there are people calling me from all over the world and telling me what an idiot I am!" It was surely the most public of embarrassments, an example of how the intersection of varied voices and ideologies and sensibilities in the brutal wild West of the new, new blogosphere can go tragically wrong. Or right. Depending on your sense of humor.
Pete's sense of humor, at least in conversation, was surprisingly -- and unnervingly -- unrelenting. He did ask that Salon not print his last name or his hometown given the threats his family has been receiving (his full name has been revealed on other sites), but the 45-year-old Internet communications consultant chortled steadily throughout an hour-long phone interview. "I've pretty much been laughing off the whole thing," he said. "When thousands and thousands of people are coming after you, if you took it seriously, you'd have a heart attack."
Indeed, it wasn't long after his first post that some helpful online critics pointed out to Pete that he had been tilting at windmills. "There were 1,400 comments on the blog," said Pete. "A bunch of them [were from people] wishing that I had been aborted, and who used lots of curse words -- probably tens of thousands of curse words." The comments, which have now been removed from March Together for Life but as of Thursday could still be found on some archived sites, included an impressive array of epithets directed at Pete, including "Dumbshit," "Asshat" and "Honkknob," and, perhaps not unreasonably, an equally impressive host of insults to Pete's intelligence. Pete also said he received more than a dozen calls at home, mostly from heavy breathers.
Four days after his initial Onion entry, Pete posted a follow-up, acknowledging that he now understood that the piece had been a joke. "Needless to say, a few people wanted to let me know that I was a dolt for thinking that her article was real," Pete wrote. "As a matter of fact, call me a dolt, because in the beginning I really did think it was real. Why? Because I meet women like her in the field all the time. Anyway, I wrote the blog in a way that was meant to point out how psychotic the pro-abortion movement is."
Pete eventually wrote five entries about the Onion piece and its aftermath, each trying out a slightly different approach to defusing the issue. "I think I did a good job of turning the 'satire' right back at them, don't you?" he wrote on Monday. On Wednesday, he floated this: "My article was a joke, which obviously thousands of you didn't get, all the while accusing me of being the stupidest person on the planet." But even as he copped to initial misapprehension, and then attempted to convince readers that he'd been yukking it up all along, Pete seemed not quite ready to let the Onion go without a fight. "We are talking about a woman who supports the murder of over 3,000 babies/human beings every single day," he wrote on Monday. And then, returning to "Weber's" link between contraception and pregnancy: "Do you see how they slip their agenda into a 'satirical' piece? Oral contraceptives cause abortions too, just at an earlier stage than hospital abortions."
If Pete sounds confused, it wouldno?=t be the first time. He grew up in Germany, raised by a German mother and American father who did not discuss religion. At about age 10, Pete said, he learned that his mother was Jewish, and that her father had been killed by the Nazis. "After all those years of being a German, knowing that Germans killed the Jews, to all of a sudden being a Jew whose family was killed by Germans," Pete said, was surprising and scary. When he was 16 and still very shaky on his religious identity, Pete said, "Christ came to me. I know the average person is going to say I'm a religious wacko, but he came to me and said, 'I'm here, whenever you want me.'"
As it turned out, Pete didn't want Christ when he was 16, or for some time afterward. Pete described himself in those days as "a hippie, a socialist, pacifist, definitely a liberal." He said that his father and brother are still vocal lefties, and that he remains close to both of them. He also mentioned that he and his wife of 24 years, with whom he has two children, participated in Hands Across America in 1986, citing the event as an example of the way "the liberal hasn't gone out of us. We just have different politics now." After moving to the states at 19, Pete fought drug and alcohol problems, and his wife left him for six years. That, he said, is when Jesus checked back in. "Christ tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Are you ready?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and then my wife said, 'I'm coming home,' and I said, 'Great!'"
When told that he sounded surprisingly cheerful for a guy who has spent a week being bitterly mocked by a delighted blogosphere, Pete replied, "I'm not a raving lunatic, if that's who you were hoping to find when you called. I would rather just move on to another day." Pete called the ruckus a "distraction" from his responsibilities with the antiabortion movement, which include going to the Holocaust Museum with placards featuring the images of aborted fetuses.
But part of what has tickled his tormentors is Pete's unwillingness to let the Onion issue go -- his multiple posts and determination to beat more life out of the mock column by the mock columnist. Why, after realizing that he was jousting with a jokester, did Pete continue his criticism of the piece? "'When you make a movie, the movie has an agenda," he said, "whether it's to promote homosexuality or religious bigotry ... You can't just write [the Onion story] off as a comedy piece. Look at that line [in the piece] that says if the HMO hadn't withdrawn coverage for her oral contraceptives she wouldn't have gotten pregnant ... I don't believe in contraception itself, but it's the contraceptive mentality that's the problem."
The funniest thing about the whole ordeal, said Pete, is that "I come from Germany -- a German economy, a German culture, German friends. And Germans have no humor." When he first came to the States, he said, he worked at Wells Fargo, where he befriended "a bunch of good old boys" who used to prank him. "They'd tease me to the point where I'd say, 'Really?' and they'd say, 'No, you idiot! When are you going to get it?' So I've been struggling with this kind of thing for a long time." Satire, he said, "is an American humor. Saying something but not really meaning it and egging a person on to see if they believe it so you can say, 'Dang, you're dumb!' I'm kind of used to people laughing at me." He said his father and brother used to do this to him as well. "What I didn't know was that there was a whole country of people doing this."