Iranian news agency apologises for reproducing The Onion article

Monday, October 1, 2012

Screenshot of FARS News Agency page containing The Onion article.
Image: FARS News Agency / The Onion.

The Iranian Fars News Agency (FNA) yesterday apologised over an article it reproduced Friday, originally written by US satirical news website The Onion on Monday September 24. The parodic article reported "a Gallup poll" suggesting "the overwhelming majority of rural white Americans" would vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, instead of US President Barack Obama. The Onion article also said "77 percent of rural Caucasian voters" would prefer to drink beer with Ahmadinejad or attend a baseball game with him as opposed to Obama.

The FNA's English service Editor-in-chief said the article had been "extracted" from The Onion and that FNA gives "our formal apologies for that mistake", as well as pointing out the article was "taken down from our outlook in less two hours".

However, the editor-in-chief also said "we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the US, a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the US political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen". He stressed that this belief does not constitute justification for the error.

[W]e do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the US, a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the US political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen

Fars News Agency Editor-in-chief

In The Onion's article, fictional West Virginia resident Dale Swiderski says about Ahmadinejad: "I like him better". 'Swiderski' is also quoted by the Chicago, Illinois website as saying the Iranian President "takes national defense seriously, and he'd never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does."

In Iran, homosexuality is a criminal offence which can carry a penalty of incarceration or capital punishment. Just over five years ago, when he participated in a debate at Columbia University in New York, New York, Ahmadinejad said: "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country".

The FNA's error made international headlines, including in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, and Australia. Will Tracy, editor of The Onion, said their website "freely shares content with Fars and commends the journalists at Iran's Finest News Source on their superb reportage", a humourous reference to The Onion's slogan, 'America's Finest News Source'.

On the original web page on The Onion's website, the satirical news organisation added a reference to "our Iranian subsidiary organization", providing a link to a screenshot of the FNA's page.

On the article page, in which The Onion was not attributed as a source, the FNA copied The Onion's article verbatim and in its entirety, save for part of a sentence saying Ahmadinejad was "a man who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust and has had numerous political prisoners executed".

This is not the first time The Onion has caused the mistaken belief of their material being factual. In a November 2007 interview with Wikinews, The Onion's Editorial Manager Chet Clem recounted an incident in which the Beijing Evening News reproduced a story from The Onion created in 2002, copied entirely verbatim, headlined "Congress threatens to leave DC unless new capitol is built". When the error was highlighted to the Chinese newspaper, Clem said "their response was not to print a correction, but just to say that some newspapers in America make money by printing lies." In a separate incident, Christians forwarded a story on the Internet from The Onion saying children were converting to Satanism as a result of reading the Harry Potter book series.

The FNA statement released yesterday went on to say "[a]ctive and well-known media occasionally make mistakes, and no media is an exception to this rule", before going to provide a list of errors made by such publications as The New York Times and Beijing Evening News, as well as television broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, and CNN.

The bottom of the FNA's statement introduces a list of notable BBC errors reported by The Daily Telegraph on December 6, 2010. While the FNA referenced The Daily Telegraph and the order of the mistakes was changed from the original article, the wording was reproduced verbatim, excluding one omitted sentence under the subheading 'Nicky Campbell and hunting mark II' which reads: "Campbell, who is also the presenter of the BBC's flagship programme for Holy Week, apologised profusely for the mistake."

According to BBC News Online, the FNA is associated with the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, an Iranian military branch.