Quvenzhane Wallis
Credit: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

There’s just one thing more shocking than The Onion’s crude tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis: Onion CEO Steve Hannah’s subsequent mea culpa.

“On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars,” he said in a statement today, following widespread outcry over a message on the microblogging site that referred called the nine-year-old Best Actress nominee a “c—.” Hannah went on to label the tweet “crude and offensive,” “senseless [and] humorless,” and “inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.” Additionally, he said, the parties responsible for posting the joke will be “disciplined.”

Such a frank admission of remorse is unusual for The Onion, a publication that’s never shied away from controversial jokes or strong, vulgar language. In fact, this may be the first time the paper has actually apologized for something it’s written — even though plenty of its creations have stoked the public’s ire before. (We can’t say for sure whether The Onion has ever issued another apology, since the site hasn’t yet responded to EW’s inquiries.)

In 2011, The Onion drew criticism for posting a series of “breaking news” tweets about a supposed hostage situation in the U.S. Capitol, complete with witness accounts of “screaming and gunfire.” The tweets were linked to a fake news story about Congress members taking schoolchildren hostage — but several panicked Twitter users took them at face value, prompting the Capitol Police to tell reporters that there was no merit to The Onion’s story. When contacted by the Washington Post, the satirical site’s writers were unapologetic: “This is satire,” they said. “That’s how it works.”

The paper gave a similarly flippant response last year, when readers were enraged by an Onion News Network video that featured a 9/11-inspired image of a plane flying into Chicago’s Willis Tower. “9/11 must never be the fodder for jokes. Perhaps you didn’t see the news that humor died after 9/11,” Onion marketing director Grant Jones dryly told The Huffington Post. He also expressed mock surprise that “other major news sources are not giving [this story] the coverage it deserves.”

The Onion also chose not to apologize when Santa Rosa’s California Parenting Institute took issue with a story that credited the organization with releasing a fake study, even after the Institute felt moved to issue a press release stating that it had nothing to do with the article. “Generally people recognize The Onion and are familiar with what we do. However, there are certainly cases of confusion for those that have never heard of us,” Onion spokeswoman Anne Finn told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, leaving the issue at that.

There seems to be just one other incident in Onion history that’s led to an apology — in 2008, a Canadian firefighter was upset to find that the paper had run a photo of him without his consent. “We feel really crummy about it and we apologize to the firefighter in question,” ex-Editorial Manager Chet Clem told the Ottawa Citizen, adding that the picture was a properly licensed shot from a photo service. Even here, though, the Onion wasn’t apologizing for its actual content.

What, then, made the Quvenzhané Wallis joke so different from every other offensive quip that’s been published by The Onion? Context seems to be the key. Although full-length stories and videos can flesh out a joke using narrative, a tweet’s 140-character limit makes that sort of development impossible. Whoever wrote that Wallis tweet may have been trying to comment on the way the media treats celebrities, or the difficulties child stars face, or even how Seth MacFarlane had sexualized Wallis with his joke about her and George Clooney. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough space for any of those ideas to be conveyed fully in the tweet — leaving The Onion with a personal attack that did nothing but attempt to shock by calling a child an ugly word.

Unless a reader really reaches for it, the c-word tweet barely even contains a joke to begin with — which, from a comedy writer’s perspective, may be the worst thing about it. And that, in the end, is probably why it warrants The Onion’s first real apology.

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