Fake news has increasingly begun to merge with factual news reporting, leaving readers struggling to tell the difference from fact and opinion. This was certainly the case for one Los Angeles Times reporter, who was left perplexed when he came upon an article regarding designs for a retractable dome roof for the US Capitol building in Washington DC.
Why were there no United States or worldwide media outlets covering such breaking news, merely a single Chinese publication? This is what transpired when a major news organization in China took US satire at face value.
The US Capitol was the subject of a story that appeared as breaking news in the Beijing Evening News on June 3, 2002. The news source has an estimated readership of 1.2 million.
According to the story, the US Capitol demanded the development of a brand-new, cutting-edge structure with a retractable domed roof. Congress apparently had threatened to depart Washington for Memphis, Tennessee, or Charlotte, North Carolina, if the demands were not met.
The article included a quote from then House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert saying, “Don’t get us wrong. We actually love the dilapidated [old] building. But the cruel reality is, it’s no longer suitable for use by a world-class legislature. Its contours are ugly, there’s no room to maneuver, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and let’s not even talk about the parking.”
With a quote from the House Speaker it must be true!
A Retractable Capitol Dome?
According to a quote from the article, Congress had intended that “The Halls Of Power would feature a retractable rotunda for daytime sessions, a Dancing Waters fountain in the front courtyard, and 55 more luxury boxes than the current building”. Amongst the number of bizarre changes, the retractable dome roof seemed overly extravagant.
The first capitol dome roof was finished in 1824, was made of wood, and was understated in comparison to the dome that was built later. Years later the original construction was deemed out of proportion with the expanding United States Capitol complex, therefore a second roof was constructed in 1866.
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A hefty $1,047,291 was spent on the enormous new dome, then as now one of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States. How could Congress now defend another reconstruction that would very certainly be funded by tax dollars?
Henry Chu was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times based in Beijing at the time the piece was published. After reading the news story, he immediately searched the major US and international news channels’ websites but came up empty-handed.
If this were the case, why wasn’t this a major news event that everyone else was covering? However, when he discovered a second report on the US Capitol’s threat to leave Washington, it began to make sense.
The Onion, a United States news outlet that touts itself as “America’s finest news source,” published a piece on May 20th that included a verbatim account of the Capitol’s demand for a retractable capitol dome roof among other things. But why was this story covered by just one small publication?
Well, the story was not all it seemed. The Onion was a satirical website that used humor to poke fun at current happenings throughout the world, publishing joke articles with a straight face. For comparison, another article on the website was titled “Planned Parenthoodwinked”, a column that described ideas for a huge abortion center called an “abortionplex” that would cost $8 billion, had a pet adoption center, and provide users valet parking.
Another bizarre piece, “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years,” made fun of how crucial material was kept secret by the government and how some documents were inadvertently erased rather than highlighted for attention.
Humor Lost in Translation
Considering the other articles on the website were satirical, had a major Chinese news agency seriously thought that this article was written as a serious piece? When Yu Bin, editor of the Evening News, was contacted by Henry Chu, he reacted defensively, asking, “How do you know whether or not we investigated the source before publishing the story?”, he questioned, “How can you prove it’s incorrect?”
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In addition to not fact-checking the piece before publication, it was later discovered that, except for modifying the opening paragraphs, the Beijing Evening News had duplicated The Onion’s articles identically.
A week following the publication of the Chinese piece, the Evening News apologized to its readers. Another editor responded to a report about the false article calling The Onion out, saying that “Some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money…This is what the Onion does.”
The most glaring error was that the journalist, whose job it is to conduct credible research, failed to understand the tone of the piece or at the very least fact-check The Onion’s article.
The second was that the original Onion story, which made fun of the US Capitol and Congress, actually made a statement on the demand for new stadium construction from US professional sports organizations. Surely the description and depiction of the movable roof would evoke associations with sporting arenas.
Even without mentioning the retractable roof, the piece was loaded with parallels to sports, including references to home viewers, C-SPAN broadcasts, and even a remark from House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, “If we want to stay competitive, we need to upgrade… look at the British Parliament. Look at the Vatican. … Without modern facilities, they’ve been having big problems attracting top talent.”
Even after the inaccuracy was pointed out to the magazine, their defensive response attacked satirical news websites as being only out to make money as clip bait sites. This revealed their lack of understanding of the various ways satire may be utilized to critique or remark on society.
Does the US Capitol building need a retractable roof? No. Was the article funny? Well, unless you are the editor of a certain Beijing newspaper, then yes: very.
Top Image: Did the United States really plan to upgrade the Capitol building with a retractable dome to attract premium talent? Source: JudithAnne / Adobe Stock.
By Roisin Everard
The Architect of the Capitol, 2022. Capitol Dome. Available at: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/buildings-grounds/capitol-building/capitol-dome
The Onion, 2002. Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built. Available at: https://www.theonion.com/congress-threatens-to-leave-d-c-unless-new-capitol-is-1819566457
The Christian Science Monitor, 2022. Not just sexy Kim Jong-un: 5 times the Onion has fooled foreign media. Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-Issues/2012/1128/Not-just-sexy-Kim-Jong-un-5-times-the-Onion-has-fooled-foreign-media/Beijing-Evening-News-US-Congress-threatens-to-relocate-if-new-capitol-not-built