BEIJING - How did a spoof article about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un being the sexiest man alive end up as a real news item in China? Turns out it was a case of telephone, or Chinese whispers, in the digital age.
Hong Kong media picked up the piece by U.S. satirical website The Onion a week ago while explaining to readers in Chinese that it was a farce. But from there, it jumped over the Great Firewall and landed into the official, irony-free Chinese media.
When Hong Kong's Phoenix TV website, ifeng.com, ran its story on its fashion channel on Nov. 21, the story's second paragraph clearly stated: "The Onion is a satirical news organization."
But, when state-run Yangtse.com picked up the Phoenix piece a few hours later, it had morphed into straight news. The piece never mentioned that the original was a joke, instead plucking comical reader comments attached to the Phoenix story and running those.
"A man with so much fat on the face, and the double chin, and the excessively white skin. And they call him the sexiest. They do deserve the name Onion. I can't help but shed sad tears."
The editor cited for the story, Yang Fang, could not immediately be reached - and two employees who answered the phone at the Nanjing media outlet said Wednesday they weren't even sure if Yang still worked there.
Five days after the Yangste piece, Beijing's Guangming Daily website took the story for a spin, cutting it back and citing Yangtse.com as its source. The Guangming piece was still live Wednesday and the story's editor told The Associated Press that she had not realized it was a joke until the AP called.
The editor, Wang Miaomiao, said she wasn't worried about the gaffe.
"Even if it was satire, the report itself was true. The content is not made up. Also, we have to go through a procedure to take something down from the website," Wang said. "In addition, it is not a fabricated report, and it does not jeopardize society."
The story next made it to the flagship paper of the Communist Party, the People's Daily, on Tuesday along with a significant upgrade: a 55-photo slideshow of Kim. An editor at the People's Daily website who refused to give his name said the story was picked up from the Guangming Daily site, running on three channels in Chinese and English.
Upon realizing it was a spoof, the People's Daily decided to take down their versions on Wednesday. But not before The Onion updated their original piece with a link to the People's Daily and a shout-out: "For more coverage on The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive 2012, Kim Jong-Un, please visit our friends at the People's Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc."
"Exemplary reportage, comrades," The Onion wrote.
It is not the first time China's heavily censored media have fallen for a fictional report by the just-for-laughs The Onion.
In 2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the capital's biggest tabloids at the time, published as news the fictional account that the U.S. Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. The Onion article was a spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums.
Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei.com, a firm that researches Chinese media and Internet, said that one of the peculiarities of the Chinese news business is that stories can be freely shared by any other media outlet in their entirety, or edited, as long as the original source is credited somewhere on the page.
"It does mean that stuff gets circulated a lot more widely because you don't have intellectual property restrictions on articles that you would in the U.S. for example," he said. "So when you mix that up with this culture of no fact-checking and not really having a news editor whose main job is seeking truth, then what you get is The Onion being taken seriously in the People's Daily."
Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang and Yu Bing contributed to this report.