SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Tongue-in-cheek clearly doesn't come naturally to the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece and the stodgy People's Daily faced ridicule on Wednesday for missing a joke about North Korea's leader.
The newspaper's website published an extensive photo spread of pudgy North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday, apparently falling for a spoof report by the satirical U.S.-based website The Onion naming Kim the "Sexiest Man Alive for 2012".
It certainly amused readers - though perhaps not as intended.
The photo spread was re-posted and commented on more than 25,000 times by Wednesday afternoon on the Sina Weibo microblogging site.
"Now I understand our party's aesthetical standards," said a blogger by the name of "butterfinger".
The People's Daily website, run separately from the print version, did not mention in photo captions or text if it understood the satirical nature of The Onion, and an editor reached by telephone declined to comment.
"This was just a normal report. We covered The Onion's report objectively and factually," he said.
If the spoof article was mistaken for being genuine it would not be a first for China's tightly controlled media.
In 2002, the Beijing Evening News ran a story quoting The Onion about the U.S. Congress threatening to leave Washington D.C. for Memphis or Charlotte unless the city gave it a new Capitol building with a retractable dome.
To some readers the Kim spread - which showed him riding horses, shaking soldiers' hands, clapping, waving - was an embarrassment.
"The People's Daily congratulates Mr. Kim Jung-un as the sexiest man in the world and the whole world is laughing," microblogger "Fu Laidi" said on Weibo.
"I just want to know if the editor was fired or not ... according to China's news rules, this is a very serious accident ... all the foreign media are laughing at us," wrote "Zhen Ye Ku Shami".
At least one user took pity on the People's Daily.
"You know how hard it is to pick positive news about North Korea?" wrote "Hacintosh". "When they finally find one, no matter what, they just put it on online."
The People's Daily print edition feeds readers a steady diet of pro-forma propaganda, including reports on the activities of China's leaders, texts of state policies and feel-good tales of model workers.
But the website has been given a long leash in some sections to pull in readers.
Other items in the photo section where the Kim report appeared, included "Stunning video: boa pukes out cow", "Celebs and their kids", and "'Sex Tape' official at work".
The Onion, meanwhile, updated its story with a link to the People's Daily photo spread, calling the paper "a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc." http://www.theonion.com/articles/kim-jongun-named-the-onions-sexiest-man-alive-for,30379/
"Exemplary reportage, comrades," it said.
(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Jason Webb and Robert Birsel)