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The “Jenny Sanford: ‘Gay marriage wrecked my family’” Joke: Not Funny.

by David Badash on July 1, 2009

in News

Publisher Explains, Apologizes – See Comments.


When is a satire not funny? When it’s almost plausible and definitely damaging. There’s a site you and I had never heard of – until today: “The Discust.” Its tagline is, “Because in South Carolina, we expect more than just the truth.” Yesterday, they ran an “article” entitled, “Jenny Sanford: ‘Gay marriage wrecked my family’.”

Here’s how it begins:

“Sullivan’s Island – South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford released another statement today, this time blaming her husband’s affair on the declining moral values in America.

“Of course I’m not saying that Mark is gay,” Sanford said, “but he may as well be.  The moral decay in this country has claimed another victim and this time it was my family.  Our marriage was perfect until these laws started passing around the country. Clearly the slow dissolution of the sanctity of marriage in America seeped into Mark’s psyche until he no longer felt compelled to abide by our vows.”

Now, I confess when I first saw it I was afraid it might be real. I read the piece and hoped it was satire. And I did some digging on the site and found their “About” page, which states,

“The “news” on this site is not entirely real.  If there is, in fact, actual news on this site, then it is likely marked as such, just so you can tell the difference.  This site is news parody, but if you had to actually come to this page to figure that out then you might not catch that particular nuance even as it’s being explained to you so maybe you should just move along.”

The site mixes “satire” with “real news.” The publisher, “Harbor Light Media” says, “The editorial content of this site is satire and parody. Real news is clearly marked. Lighten up.” Um, no, I won’t.

I was relieved, but angry. Angry, because there are enough people who are blaming gay marriage for many things. (People like Rep. Sally Kern, whom you’ll read here tomorrow what she’s blaming gay marriage for.) Angry because most people don’t have the time to dig around a site, especially when one of their friends on Twitter (which is where I first saw this) recommends a story. Angry because so many people passed the story on unwittingly, as fact. And angry because some will never know it is false.

Doing some quick research, I found well over a hundred mentions of the story on Twitter and Google, including pieces by a few well-known bloggers who were duped.

But the damage done here is to Jenny Sanford (whose views on gay marriage are not known to me,) and to the institution of marriage itself.

I left a comment on the site, although it seems comments are no longer available for viewing. Here’s what I wrote:

“Well, by the type of comments and the vast number of comments, it’s clear what you (the author of this “article”) are doing is not working. Yes, I had to check your “about” page to verify my hopes that this was satire. It may be intended to be satirical, but it’s not funny. And, worse, it is damaging and hurtful.

There are a great many people who have read your piece and believed it to be true. I can see from all the Twitter mentions that you have now made a great many people believe that Mrs. Sanford is a horrible person, and yes, you have just reinforced for some that gay marriage is the evil they assumed. I’ll assume you do not believe that to be true, and if so, you have chosen a poor way of showing your support to the millions of lesbian and gay Americans who are working so hard for equality.

I am no lawyer, but your “disclaimer” being on a different page, in my opinion, is at best misleading.

I urge you to label this piece, and your site, more clearly. “The Onion” can do what it does because it is a brand, and has a reputation. You do not. Please reconsider what you are doing here. You have done enough damage already.

I urge you to publish an explanation and a retraction, and, an apology.”

Irresponsible publishers need to put their thinking caps on and estimate the results of their actions before they hit “publish.”

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marklesliewoods July 1, 2009 at 10:28 pm

So your point is that everything on the Internet should conform to your rules, i.e., never make comedy complicated / keep all jokes to sound bites, right?

Who says parody needs to be easy to get? In fact, most parody is targeted for a specific group who have tired of the conventions of a style or genre, and are consenting to allow themselves as an audience to be mocked — or tricked, which ever comes first.

In other words, if you don't like sophisticated parody, don't read it and don't share it. And what happened here, you're usually on the ball — this post is feeble, friend.

You're right, some folks won't 'get it' but isn't that true of everything? Sheesh! next you'll be censoring Bruno . . .

JaySF July 2, 2009 at 12:40 am

Excuse me, I am no fan of conservatives and I truly find it amusing that Sanford, literally, got caught with his pants down while preaching the sanctity of, well, everything. BUT, do YOU know Mrs. Sanford? I know I don't. She is a public figure because of her husband…who deserves the ridicule and scorn placed upon him for his actions. What has Mrs. Sanford done to anybody to get treated like this? Nobody has the right to trash her like this, even in the name of parody. Someone may have access to do it, but that just doesn't make it right. Regardless of what YOU think of marriage and commitment, Mrs. Sanford may very well have entered into a relationship where trust has been broken. She is a victim. So, it is funny, it is worthwhile to slam the victim? Do you think it is also funny to make fun of victims of natural disasters, victims of war and violence? If you do, then you place parody on a higher plane than humanity. That's your call, but it doesn't speak much about your personality.

brianstroup July 1, 2009 at 10:30 pm

I think the article gained credibility by virtue of being listed on Google News. When I first saw a link to the article on Twitter, I went to Google News to seek corroboration. Each search I tried brought up the same large, bold link to with their headline, grouped with several other articles about Jenny Sanford from the AP and Washington Post. I know this kind of blog post falls into Google News quite often but I'm sure I am not alone in lending credibility to links that I see there. The post does not appear on Google News searches anymore, but does appear on Google Blog Search.

David July 1, 2009 at 10:49 pm

I was pretty horrified when I first saw that, but I knew other people would want to see it as well, which is why I posted it on my Twitter. Of course, considering that the website is virtually unknown (it's not the Onion, it's not Colbert) for its satire, it would be easy to assume that Jenny Sanford really said those things.

I agree with your viewpoint, David. It's not funny at all. If Sanford doesn't actually feel that way, it's damaging to her already fractured reputation for being married to that philandering fucknut. If she does, then it only spreads more hate around, since the First Lady of South Carolina is certainly heard and acknowledged on a regular basis. Nice job here. Thanks for doing the research.

Incidentally, marklesliewoods, when your blog has something of substance on it, you can criticize David's work. Until then, simmer down. If he knocks Bruno in the coming weeks, so what. At least I know it's going to be good writing, and well-thought out, as is everything he writes.

Brian July 1, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Hi David,

I sincerely apologize if the story offended you either in content or presentation, but as you note, it is satire. My personal feeling is that good satire is just believable enough that it makes you pause and think about it, but in the twitterific age of quick repostings, retweetings, etc., people don't always take that time. Mark Twain said that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be believable. The commentary here, I believe, is the simple fact that so many people believed this article to be true. I think that says a lot about both our leaders and our neighbors. The biggest obstacle for me, at this point, is that the Mark Sanford story reads like satire — it couldn't have been written as satire a year ago because nobody would have believed it.

I launched this site just over a month ago, so yes, it is new; but it was really going to a vehicle for those of us in South Carolina to ridicule our leadership. I should have known that the level of idiocy in SC was too great to be contained within it's borders. As one of your commentators implied, if this had been published in The Onion, people wouldn't have blinked. If you look closely at The Onion, though, you'll have a hard time finding a disclaimer at all, much less one on every page. The difference is familiarity, a problem that will either fade as my site grows, or disappear if my site fails.

Addressing the google news search, that just happened today for the first time and it took me by surprise. Satirical links are supposed to be listed as "satire" but that clearly wasn't happening. I don't know why, but I did everything on my part to abide by their guidelines.

As for comment posting, I don't know about your site (I'll find out shortly), but I approve comments before they're posted to avoid the spam/porn/etc. that gets submitted. Unfortunately, I occasionally have an hour or two every so often where I'm not monitoring, so there are some gaps. Every legitimate comment, good/bad/whatever, that's ever been submitted is available on the site.

As for Jenny Sanford, I don't think she's on the record speaking about gay marriage, at least not that I could find, but her husband has said plenty, and up until the last gubernatorial election (including when he ran for and won a seat in Congress) she was his campaign manager, and I hear that she's every bit as religious right-wing as he is, if not more. That being said, this was not an attack on Mrs. Sanford, this was merely satire of the situation and the ridiculous statements being issued by the Christian conservatives on an almost daily basis. If anything, it's a satire of Rush's statement the other day that the affair was, in fact, Barack Obama's fault. But again, a statement like that has to be true because nobody would buy it as fiction.

Everyone has a different sense of humor, and a different method to their madness. This is mine, and it's not perfect, but neither am I.

Good luck with your cause, or I should say our cause — we're all human and we all deserve equal rights.

On a personal note, my biggest problem with the prop8 fight in California wasn't that the fight was lost, it was that someone thought it even needed to be voted on in the first place.

Doug July 2, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Brian – I thought it was great. It did completely fool me, because if one is familiar with all the personalities "quoted" in the piece, it is completely plausible. I didn't have a clue that it was a send-up until I saw Olbermann "quoted", and I knew that he wasn't on the air that night.

David Badash July 2, 2009 at 12:19 am

First, let me give you major kudos for having the integrity to apologize. Honestly, I do appreciate satire and humor. And to your point, and others, it is about context. Had your piece appeared in The Onion (perhaps this is a good opportunity to contact them?) I'm sure I would have taken it much differently. Maybe if it were a bit clearer your site was/includes satire, I think the confusion wouldn't have occurred.

As you can tell, part of my goal is to help people see what their leaders are saying and doing, and in that, we definitely share a common purpose. I hope your site is successful. I appreciate your frustration with the leadership in South Carolina – I have written elsewhere about Mark Sanford's issues – pre-affair, and here, about your neighbor in North Carolina, Virginia Foxx.

Again, kudos for understanding the situation, and for having the integrity to apologize. I'll do what I can to let folks know your point of view too.

Red Seven July 2, 2009 at 12:29 am

I think it's great that Brian left a comment here, but for me the problem wasn't that the story wasn't labelled as satire – it's that it wasn't very satirical. The best news parodies I read start out sounding plausible enough, but by the end, the authors have taken stupid positions to their logical extremes and what's being said is obvious asshattery. With this story, it started out plausible, and ended … perfectly plausible. And knowing that there are people out there who would agree with every word of that article makes for ineffective comedy. If this piece had appeared in The Onion, it not only would have been assumed to be parody; it would have been (I hate to say it) funnier.

Brian July 2, 2009 at 1:21 am

Thanks David, and one last point to Red… you're right, the article could have been funnier — it was not our best effort in the humor department (The Onion frequently falls flat as well), but please look around, I'm sure you'll find some you like better. Of course a lot of our content won't be as amusing if you're not in SC, but might I suggest "Sanford, Legislature compromise: SC to secede from USA, accept stimulus funds as foreign aid:"

Mari Kurisato July 2, 2009 at 1:30 am

The essence of the "That's not funny" argument seems to me to be that the satire wasn't blatantly obvious–in fact the statements in the piece "sounded plausible" (Really?) and that the site didn't immediately identify itself as satirical.

What happened to subtlety? No joke is funny if the punchline is given away up front, and you stated you would have reacted differently had the piece been on the Onion?

Personally, I enjoyed the hell out of the piece, and that was before checking to make sure my suspicions were confirmed.

Unite the Fight July 2, 2009 at 3:19 am

I have to say that when I first read the piece, I was sitting in bed, blogging away when my partner lying next to me IM'ed me the link (there's a satire waiting to happen – communicating in bed through IM).

I was aghast but at the same time laughed out loud at how stupid Jenny Sanford was coming across. And then I laughed harder at the so-called statement from the governor "but we like where she's going with this."

When I read that, I thought – "This can't be real!" I even started getting ready to blog about it, so I searched their sources – the governor's full statement, Limbaugh's remarks, Olbermann piece on YouTube and couldn't find anything. Then I also checked the "About." I was relieved when I read it.

But context isn't everything. With the Onion, their headlines are completely implausible all the time making it quite obvious upfront that their fake. Such as, "Taco Bell's New Green Menu Takes No Ingredients From Nature" or "No One In Women's Shelter Able To Cook Decent Meal."

diSCust is easily real. I think there's a place for this satire (whether or not they found it, I'm not sure). And yes, it made me think. I said to my partner right away, "This is going to blow up in her face." It made me pause. It reminded me that these kind of statements ARE happening. When I realized it was fake, I concluded, "But it could have easily been real."

If that's the point of the piece, then they succeeded.

Joe Decker July 2, 2009 at 7:32 am

Apropos of this is Poe's Law, "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing."

As the cocreator of "God Hates Shrimp", I can pretty much vouch for this. Even when we put "this site is a work of parody" on the front page, we'd still get letters from people who thought we were serious.

I don't have a solution for it, but finding the right line is certainly difficult to manage at times!

Superabound July 2, 2009 at 7:51 pm

BREAKING NEWS: Johnathan Swift actually ate babies

Unite the Fight July 2, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Superabound – you are awesome!

chrisv July 3, 2009 at 1:05 am

The really sad part of this is that the right wing is crazy enough for this to be believable

hunnycaress July 3, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Geez, some of us need to lighten up. Satire has been used for centuries to expose stupidity. I think the article accomplished that. I just hope the "right" people read it!

PGofHSM July 21, 2009 at 8:04 pm

I have to say that I've heard the "it's gay marriage's fault!" joke so many times in reference to Sanford (Colbert, e.g., has done it) that I never even considered this could possibly be real.

Frankly, I am troubled by what people who thought it was real were assuming about Mrs. Sanford, who is a well-educated woman who had a great career outside the home prior to her marriage and who was the manager of her husband's successful political campaigns. Is the idea here that because she is religious and married to a social conservative, she must be a homophobic twit?

Even if you knew nothing about Mrs. Sanford prior to this scandal, the fact that she has been the rare political wife to refuse to "stand by her man" and instead has very publicly laid all responsibility squarely at his door (in contrast to those who tried to blame the pressures of office), should have caused a greater degree of skepticism in hearing that suddenly she was blaming gay marriage.

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