When is satire acceptable?

(Joe Tunney/AQ)
(Joseph Tunney/AQ)

St. Thomas University has filed a lawsuit against the fictitious news site The Manatee for libel over an article stating that St. Thomas is to be absorbed by the University of New Brunswick’s liberal arts department. STU, alleging defamation, hurt feelings and Catholic guilt, is seeking all of the Manatee’s money, which is none.

Alex Vietinghoff, the author of the article and co-founder of The Manatee, was last seen weeping uncontrollably over the T-Ball, screaming, “Oh, the humanities!” as his T-Ring was melted down in front of him.

“Vietinghoff,” university president Dawn Russell said dismissively while making a wanking motion and giggling like a schoolgirl. “That will teach him to put words I didn’t say in my mouth. That’s Jeffrey Carleton’s job.”

That was kind of dumb and probably not funny, but you knew it was fake, didn’t you? Dawn Russell would never talk like that. Still, not everything in that opening is false. Vietinghoff is a STU grad, the co-founder of the Manatee and wrote an article about St. Thomas being swallowed by UNB. A few people read it seriously and complained to the university. But the opening paragraph of this article is over the top, and readers recognize it. It’s satirizing the situation by blowing it out of proportion.

Vietinghoff’s article was also making a joke. But the amalgamation of the two universities is not necessarily an over-the-top suggestion, especially in recent years as the province tries to rationalize money spent on higher education.

Is that satire? Or is that potentially damaging?

Vietinghoff believes satire is when something is true enough that it could be real, but exaggerated enough readers know it’s a joke if you think critically.

“Anytime I write an article that I think there might be people who take this seriously, I make sure to go back before it’s published and make sure there is at least one thing in this article that will make it obvious that it is satire,” said Vietingoff.

But Vietingoff’s piece reads straightforward; it sounds like a news story. There are some jokes about how STU actually having a good hockey team for once and how passionate people are about school colours, but if you weren’t from Fredericton and a potential recruit, you could easily be fooled.

There is a disclaimer at the bottom of the web page, but eight people contacted the university about the article.

So, what is the line between satire and just publishing untrue facts? Were the people who read it as true wrong? Were they just not reading critically?

STU journalism professor Michael Camp doesn’t think so.

“The problem with all satirical journalism or spoof journalism is that it wears the name journalism and people aren’t sure what they’re reading,” Camp said.

He uses the example of a past Manatee about IKEA coming to Bathurst. Creating false hopes about jobs are not something that should be played around with in Camp’s opinion. People in northern New Brunswick are desperate for employment and only disappointment can follow from reading that article.

Camp likes that the Manatee has the public’s attention but he thinks they need to question where the joke lies. Is it in the words they write or with the number of people fooled?

“I think if you have a substantial amount of people who read it as a serious article then you’re not making it clear enough that it’s a satire,” Camp said. “And I don’t even really see that as a satire. It’s humorous, but because it’s totally fabricated and not meant as a political commentary or a social commentary, it’s more like a spoof or a joke.”

As for the university’s public image, spokesman Jeffrey Carleton said St. Thomas isn’t overly concerned with satire.

“Satire is a long-standing and acceptable form of writing. We’re used to it,” Carlton said. “The Manatee is a new publication and I’ve seen the articles they’ve done before, and knowing that Alex Vietingoff is a graduate of St. Thomas and a former employee of St. Thomas, we knew it was only a matter of time before they circled back and dressed St. Thomas in some form or another.”

When asked if the talks of amalgamation between the two schools had happened in last few years, Carleton said no. These rumours are just that, rumours.

Nobody sees the Manatee as malicious. But Camp thinks the online satirical publication could realize its true potential if it just pulled back a bit, tried to see the big picture and started satirizing the right things.

“There’s so much material out there that if you’re a dedicated satirist, New Brunswick is a goldmine. There’s a lot to make playful fun of. And I don’t mean trashing reputations or being insensitive,” said Camp. “And at the same time send a message that should be heard.”

See the original article from The Manatee here.

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Shauna Chase

    In response to your “When is Satire Acceptable” story that ran Feb. 3, I’d like to point out a few important things that didn’t make it into the article, along with items that did but that were a bit skewed.

    As the other co-founder of The Manatee along with Alex Vietinghoff, I do have a vested interest in how the site is represented, but I think this article was a case of editorializing without representing both sides of the story.

    The writer didn’t seem to understand that The Manatee is meant to be satire, which isn’t the same thing as “fictitious news,” as he called it, and it’s certainly not the same thing as spreading “rumours.” Using these kinds of words as synonyms with satire is telling the reader what to think, not letting them decide for themselves based on fact.

    Continuing this editorial-as-journalism piece, your writer said: “But Vietinghoff’s piece reads straightforward; it sounds like a news story… if you weren’t from Fredericton and a potential recruit, you could easily be fooled.” That’s not a fact — that’s the writer’s personal opinion. Most people I know who read the story could plainly see that it wasn’t true and was meant to poke fun at a long-running joke. If a potential recruit is going to read satire as straightforward and based on that decide not to attend STU, maybe that’s for the best since STU values critical thinking (or at least it did when I was a student there)?

    The Manatee story about the Ikea in Bathurst, also written by Alex, was portrayed by your journalist as a hoax meant to trick poor unemployed northern NBers and give them false hope. Even the mayor of Bathurst acknowledged the humour in the story, and in the Northern Light he applauded what we’re doing with The Manatee.

    As far as the story Alex wrote about STU being swallowed up by UNB, “When is Satire Acceptable” stated that eight people contacted the university about it — considering the story got more than 40,000 headline views and 3,300 story visitors, those eight are negligible. If anything, STU got more notice from potential recruits because of The Manatee’s take on it.

    And according to your journalist, Michael Camp thinks The Manatee has potential, but only if we “tried to see the big picture and started satirizing the right things.” That’s incredibly vague — we’ve been satirizing all kinds of relevant issues that are near and dear to New Brunswick. These have included everything from outlandish topics like the last known donair dying in a nature preserve (please note that dozens of people believed the donair is a real animal — are we to be blamed that people read that as a real story?) to more poignant issues like Brunswick News acquiring all news outlets in the province, or the late immersion French program that is nowhere near as effective as the early immersion program was.

    The Manatee is a brand-new publication run entirely by myself and Alex, and your article made it seem as though it’s a lie-spinning empire trying to pull a fast one on all of New Brunswick.

    We have about 50 writers in total, each with their own unique writing style, and not all of them want or need to affect positive social change with what they write. Our goal is to entertain people and make them think, so it’s fine with us if some writers only want to make people laugh rather than provide a social commentary.

    I’m proud to say I graduated with a liberal arts degree from St. Thomas, but this article makes me think some of the school’s journalism students need to learn a few things about objective reporting.

    Thank you,

    Shauna Chase

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