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On Religion: The Babylon Bee Wrestles with News, Reality and Satire

When it comes to mainstream journalism, it’s hard to imagine a stronger brand than The New Yorker.

This prestigious magazine is, of course, also known for humor and cartoons. A recent satire feature proclaimed: “Chick-fil-A Introduces New Hate Sauce.”

“Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce,” wrote Andy Borowitz.

“Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. ‘It’s so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire — like a gay couple in hell,’ said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando.”

Could readers see a short Facebook item about that feature and think it was real?

How about this headline? “House Democrats Draft Legislation That Would Make It A Hate Crime To Eat At Chick-fil-A.”

Is that Babylon Bee bulletin fake news or satire? Then there was this headline at that same Christian satire website: “Trump Announces He Was Born Of A Virgin And Will Bring Balance To The Force.”

Babylon Bee writers could — day after day — grab “low-hanging fruit” offered by President Donald Trump, noted publisher Seth Dillon, who bought the Bee in 2018.

“All this stuff keeps happening that is soooo outrageous that we just couldn’t make it up,” he said. “People keep seeing headlines that make them stop and say, ‘Wait a minute. Did that really happen?’ ”

Bizarre twists in the news inspired this recent Bee headline: “Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire.”

That was also a shot at claims by Snopes.com researchers that The Babylon Bee was linked to numerous “fake news” claims in which readers confused satire with reality. They said the Bee’s work was more problematic than The Onion, a secular satire site. The Bee calls itself,”Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire.” The Onion’s motto is, “America’s Finest News Source” — without the word “satire.”

“Stories published by The Bee were among the most shared factually inaccurate content in almost every survey we conducted,” Snopes.com reported. “Members of both parties failed to recognize that The Babylon Bee is satire, but Republicans were considerably more likely to do so. Of the 23 falsehoods that came from The Bee, eight were confidently believed by at least 15% of Republican respondents.”

The Bee team noted that 100% of its “news” reports are intentionally fake. The website also reported: “Concerning Survey Finds Too Many People Believe Snopes Is A Legitimate Fact-Checking Website.”

“There are certainly legitimate concerns that some people can get taken in by satire when it starts floating around online,” said Dillon, whose company is based in Jupiter, Fla. “But the words ‘taken in’ are crucial. People are often confused about our content when they encounter it in settings that we have no control over.

“If you see stuff on our site, you know it’s satire. But when people copy our content, strip it of Babylon Bee references and our graphics and then send it all over the Internet — that’s when people get confused. The question is, ‘What can we do to stop people from doing that?’ ”

The big question: How often do satirists need to label their work “satire”?

“We could write, “This is satire!” above the headline,” said Dillon. “In the middle (of the article) we could say, ‘Don’t forget that you’re reading satire.’ At the end we could say, ‘Warning: You have been reading satire.’ … Would that stop people from messing up our stuff?”

As a rule, Bee reports generate less controversy when focusing on religion (“New Prayer App Delivers Electric Shock Every Time User Says ‘Just’ “). Still, its most-clicked story ever zapped a celebrity preacher: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.’ ”

But the Bee has always poked politicians. When it launched in 2016, one item showed President Barack Obama crying after hearing that Christians were starting a satire website.

“The Bee is a business, too,” said Dillon. “Political humor is hot. Obviously, that stuff goes viral. … If we just did church jokes, I don’t think we could pay the bills and keep the lights on.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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