Is there anything worse than someone not getting a joke? Yes, there is. It’s someone misinterpreting a joke as fact and turning it into a national scandal.
Dan Friedman knows all about it.
A reporter with New York’s Daily News, Friedman recently recounted how a flippant question to a government source almost scuttled U.S. President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence.
Friedman was looking into allegations that Hagel was accepting speaking fees from controversial organizations.
He contacted a Republican aide and asked if he knew whether Hagel had made any recent speeches to the “Junior League of Hezbollah” or “Friends of Hamas.”
“The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically,” he wrote. “No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.”
But this is the U.S., and the Republican Party. It didn’t take long for the right-wing blog Breitbart.com to post an all-cap screamer: “SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE (SPOKESMAN) DUCKS QUESTION ON ‘FRIENDS OF HAMAS.’”
Others picked up on the accusation, and the “news” spread like wildfire. The Breitbart piece was carefully worded to remain speculative, but that made little difference. Unwittingly, Friedman had created a myth in which a respected former senator and future defence secretary had been chatting it up with terrorists.
Journalists come by flippancy naturally. It’s hard not to become a little cynical or jaded on certain topics, and humour serves as a release valve.
But in this day of electionic messaging — especially the short and pithy medium of Twitter — it’s easy to see how things can go awry.
In the late 1990s, the CBC suspended national reporter Terry Milewski after Jean Chrétien’s communications director complained that his reporting was one-sided.
Milewski had been covering the story of whether the Prime Minister’s Office was involved in the decision to pepper-spray protesters at an APEC conference in B.C.
The smoking gun was an email Milewski sent to one of the protesters in which he flippantly referred to the government as “the forces of darkness.”
In clearing Milewski’s name in 2000, this is how CBC ombudsman Marcel Pepin characterized the reference:
“I am incapable of imagining any professional journalist seriously qualifying the government as ‘the forces of darkness.’ I know dozens, though, who in private conversation would use this sort of expression cynically or jokingly about a government.”
Sometimes jokes just aren’t funny. And even when they are, they can lead to unintended consequences.
The only sure bet — not only for journalists, but anyone conducting serious business — is to put the humour on hold.