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Is US politics so bizarre that headlines require a label: 'Not the Onion'?

'Not The Onion' is a way to flag a political article or assertion considered so unbelievable that it just had to come from the satiric publication.

Little, Brown and Company/AP/File
This photo provided by Little, Brown and Company, cropped here for space, shows the book cover of 'The Onion Magazine: The Iconic Covers That Transformed an Undeserving World.'

“Not The Onion. A way to flag a political article or assertion considered so extraordinarily absurd and unbelievable that it just had to come from the satiric publication.

“Not The Onion” has been used to describe all sorts of real-life ridiculousness; the entertainment and news site Reddit has a whole page with the name that boasts more than 2 million readers. But a variety of recent examples indicate that it’s becoming especially popular in the political world, often when put in front of a headline or as the subject line of an e-mail.

Last week, White House spokesman Eric Schultz labeled the Taliban an “armed insurgency” instead of a terrorist group. Reporters asked Schultz’s boss, Josh Earnest, why the Islamic fundamentalist movement wasn’t seen as a terror organization, even though the Treasury Department had designated it as one. Earnest’s assertions that the Taliban carries out “tactics that are akin to terrorism” led the Republican National Committee to send out a mocking e-mail response with the subject line “Not The Onion.”

Earnest also came in for criticism in July, when he rebuked The Washington Post for running an article in which anonymous sources said the Obama administration failed to heed warnings that led to the refugee crisis on the US-Mexico border. Noting that officials had just scheduled a White House-sanctioned background briefing with anonymous “senior administration officials,” Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote an article headlined: “Not The Onion: White House press secretary criticizes anonymous sourcing.”

Bloggers are especially fond of the phrase. When outspoken liberal activist and MSNBC host the Rev. Al Sharpton held a meal attended by the family of Eric Garner, the New Yorker who died at police hands during an arrest, the right-wing website Gateway Pundit issued a post: “Not The Onion: Al Sharpton Denounces ‘Cheap Demagogues’ Exploiting Execution of Cops.”

Across the political spectrum, the website Raw Story last month ran an article headlined “Not The Onion: Louie Gohmert Named ‘Legislator of the Year’ by Texas Judges” after the highly controversial conservative received the honor from the Judges/Commissioners Association of Deep East Texas.

But its usage isn’t always confined to blasts between partisans. The Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill found a way in September to deploy the phrase to describe an unlikely agreement between one of the Senate’s most outspoken Democrats and one of its most conservative Republicans: “Not The Onion: Elizabeth Warren, Richard Shelby Agree.” 

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