Did you hear the one about the traveling salesman?
Jude Wanniski
August 13, 1998

 

Memo To: Mike Barnicle, The Boston Globe
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Off with their heads!

I am, of course, pleased to see the editors of the Globe decided against the guillotine after your 25 exemplary years as reporter and columnist. When I first heard the report that your editor demanded your resignation when he learned you had told some jokes without attribution, I thought of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: "Off with his head!" I'm only sorry that they made you grovel, asking the Globe and its readers to forgive you for the terrible things you had done in swiping some jokes out of George Carlin's new book, "Brain Droppings," without saying they had come from Carlin. Then I heard you had done an even more terrible thing, saying you did not know they came from Carlin's book, after you had told a radio audience to go out and buy his book because there was a yuk on every page. Caught in a double lie -- as some sniffy editors and columnists have pointed out.

I see in today's NYTimes that one of the top editors, Howell Raines, joins the Queen of Hearts in calling for the guillotine. Normally a sensible fellow, Howell is unfair and unjust in arguing that if you were female or black, you would have been fired, but survived because you are a white male. Off with Ho well's head, I say. It's overheated. If the Globe's Susan Smith had been fired for telling jokes without crediting them to a book she was recommending, instead of concocting stories that bear upon public policy, the NAACP and feminist organizations would march on the Globe offices, and I would join the march.

As far as I'm concerned, all jokes are in the public domain the instant they are conceived. This is a tradition Milton Berle taught us 50 years ago. If George Carlin actually sat down at his word processor and composed the jokes in his book that you recast in your column, I will eat my red sox. As to the more serious charge that you said you read a book that you didn't, well, I'm afraid I will leave that to the judgment of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Of course, if he is going to assign you to the netherworld for plugging a book you didn't read, for a friend whose jokes you swiped, then I'm afraid you are going to have a lot of company down there. I can tell you about major political figures who had books ghosted they did not bother to read that made the NYTimes best-seller list.

All of which is to say that I do not accept your apology, because I do not believe you own me one. If it is the price you have to pay to stay in the employ of the mommies at the Globe, well I forgive you for that. There are much bigger lies that are told every day by more influential journalists than Mike Barnicle.

Did you happen to read Maureen Dowd's column in the Sunday NYTimes? It was about big lies and little lies, public lies and secret lies. It wasn't about you, but about President Clinton and Robert McNamara the former who tells little public lies, about his personal life, and the latter, who told whoppers in secret about the Vietnam war, and now has a new career as an author/groveler. Maureen said she would "like to be more like Mark Twain. Mr. Twain defended lying and rapped George Washington for setting the bar too high for leaders. 'The spoken lie is of no consequence,' he wrote, adding: 'The silent colossal national lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairness that afflict the peoples that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.'" Maureen pointed out that he was talking about slavery.

As a former journalist, I can't help observing the hand-wringing going in the profession about the decline of standards, as we hear of one kid after another making up quotes and stories in order to spice up his reports. These are spoken lies, I think, of little consequence, although I agree with Ho well Raines they should be stamped out if they aren't jokes. The journalists should rather think of all the national lies being told every day, on which they maintain a discreet silence. I try to encourage the editors I know, for example, to ask "Why are U.S. embassies being blown up around the world?," instead of "Who is doing it?" I'm afraid they know deep down where the source of the problems are, and it is a national no-no to talk about it. I ask editors I know to trace back the source of the Asian crisis, instead of kidding themselves that it started in Asia, but it is a national no-no to walk back to the source. Back in 1996, when President Clinton bombed Iraq, to kick off his re-election campaign, I could not find an editor anywhere who would point out that this violated the War Powers Act. As long as the national political establishment agrees on a lie, the national press corps alls into line. All the top editors know, for example, that since the sanctions were first imposed on Iraq in 1991, it has been secret public policy to keep them in place no matter what Baghdad does in compliance. And the UN estimates that 1.5 million civilians have died as a result.

The national political establishment is currently engaged in a wide range of such national lies and coverups, of the kind Mark Twain had in mind, which is why my former profession has to beat its breast about one of its own swiping old jokes in Boston.