A panel discussion featuring members of a satirical newspaper celebrating its 1,000th issue was rocked Tuesday by a flaxen-haired cable news anchor's shocking revelation that he was, as the publication reported, taken as "a wife" by an Afghan warlord.
"He was a gentle lover," CNN's Anderson Cooper, the panel's moderator, revealed to writers from The Onion at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
"I like that I look resigned," Cooper added, referring to the photo (above) that ran in 2006 under the headline, "Afghan Warlord Takes Anderson Cooper As 43rd Wife."
But the host of "Anderson Cooper 360" and an upcoming syndicated daytime show quickly regretted going along with the joke at a media panel. "I can see tomorrow's Huffington Post headline now: 'Anderson Cooper Calls Afghan Warlord Gentle Lover—Click Here to Find Out More!'"
Cooper had earlier joked that was able to summon the strength to escape his Afghan captivity because "I chew on amphetamines like Tic Tacs."
Amidst the jokes, Cooper and five Onion staffers discussed publication's headline-driven editorial process, including their infamous Monday editorial meeting—comprised of "white people and very white people"—in which roughly 400 headlines are pitched for a weekly issue that will use about 15.
"I'd say two percent make it to print," Joe Garden, the paper's features editor, said. Garden explained that one key to a headline's success is to shun a running list of banned phrases, such as "threw up a little in my mouth," "die on the inside" and "William Shatner."
The writers also discussed their elaborate campaign to win a Pulitzer Prize and unabashed affection for newspapers, their move from Madison, Wisconsin to New York on the eve of 9/11, and how Twitter and social media have changed their comedic approach.
Despite owning a website that attracts 10 million unique visitors a month, The Onion is truly a print-first operation.
"I always think of the issue," associate editor Will Tracy said. "It's funnier in print to me."
The Onion's print circulation—about 400,000 copies—is growing, and recent launches in such bustling cities as Santa Fe and Fort Collins, Colo., are proof that "newsprint is not dying!," sports editor John Krewson said.
The Onion's 9/11 coverage—which arguably put the paper's Middle American sensibility on the national media's radar—happened by chance; its first New York edition was due to launch on Sept. 12, and they decided to do a 9/11 issue two weeks later.
"I knew our hearts were in the right place," Garden said, but he was nonetheless worried the paper might be booted right out of New York, backed by a deserved chorus of "too soon!" Instead, the paper won wide praise for the issue.
The panel recounted some of the paper's most controversial pieces—including a recent video that claims teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is really a 51-year-old pedophile. "We get calls from parents all day about it," editorial manager Kate Palmer said.
Another recent headline—"Planned Parenthood Opens $8 billion Abortionplex"—got picked up in the social-media world as an actual news report.
Oddly enough, the paper's writers reported that they get very little criticism from celebrity targets. (Drew Barrymore even sent cookies!) At the same time, though, celebrities have yet to request coverage in "America's Finest News Source."
"I fought to be raped by that Afghan warlord," Cooper joked.
The Onion writers also made a sharp distinction between their brand of humor and kind the "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" churn out, which is more reality-based, and led by the traditional news cycle. "We create a fake world," Krewson said.
And while "10 out of 10 people would say that" The Onion is produced by liberals, the writers argued that the jokes don't bleed red or blue state exclusively. "If you're acting like an idiot, you get made fun of," Krewson said.
The Onionites conceded that the Bush administration provided too much material—which proved its own challenge, they said. "It was too easy," Garden said. "The jokes just kept coming, and everybody was doing the same ones."
The rise of Twitter has produced a similar challenge for news satirists: how to avoid running the tired jokes that comedians and people on Twitter are tweeting. Exhibit A, they noted, was the Anthony Weiner scandal.
The key to social media at The Onion, Garden said, is "to maintain our voice."