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When satire crosses a line: The Onion apologizes for 'crude' tweet

Quenzhané Wallis, best actress nominee for her role in "Beasts of the Southern Wild", arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 24, 2013.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On an evening when many were wondering whether the politically incorrect frat-boy humour of Oscar host Seth MacFarlane would cross a line and cause a furore, it was a website famous for its boundary-pushing satire that ended up having to issue an apology.

Steve Hannah, CEO of The Onion, has posted an abject apology on the website's Facebook page for a startlingly rude and unnecessary tweet it posted during the Oscar broadcast in reference to Quvenzhané Wallis, the nine-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

"It was crude and offensive – not to mention inconsistent with The Onion's commitment to parody and satire, however biting," Hannah says in his apology. "No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire."

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He says that "we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible." And, he adds, "we are deeply sorry."

The Onion removed the tweet about an hour after first posting it. You can see the joke the now possibly unemployed Onion tweeter was trying to make: Wallis is an adorable and charming little girl who brought a cute teddy-bear purse to the Oscars; making a dark, sarcastic comment about the saccharine insincerity of Hollywood stars fits in with the website's transgressive and generally well-loved brand of satire.

Cases in point: The apology was posted on the Onion's home page this morning beside an item about Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, wearing "the blood-soaked rags Osama Bin Laden was killed in" on the red carpet.

There is also an article on the site the day after the Oscars purported to be written by Daniel Day-Lewis, who won the best actor award for his role as Abraham Lincoln in the film Lincoln, headlined "While I'm Glad I Won, I Personally Believe Abraham Lincoln Deserved To Die."

The Onion has raised hackles before without ever having to apologize. The difference this time was its choice of offensive descriptive noun and the fact the taboo word was applied to a young girl. There is perhaps some small irony that a single word evoked such anger on the same night the Oscar for best original screenplay went to Quentin Tarantino, whose Django Unchained is filled with the N-word, a fact that caused a lot of concern and anger. But even the most satirical of satirists has to know where to draw the line between usefully funny and pointlessly mean. It was a terrible thing to tweet, but kudos to the Onion for coming out from behind the shield of satire and admitting it was wrong.

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