One of the weirder journalistic feuds in recent memory erupted this past week, only to dissolve in a pool of urine as quickly as it blossomed. It started on July 1, when the Washington Post published a Gene Weingarten humor column based on the writer’s impending syndication in the Peoria Journal Star. The premise: Weingarten wasn’t sure his humor would play in Peoria — say it twice, slowly — so he called up the Illinois town’s mayor, Jim Ardis, for a trial run.
The results were inconclusive. Weingarten’s description of his own writing, offered for Ardis’s benefit, was quite entertaining: “It’s mostly snide, smart-aleck stuff, gratuitous character assassination, quasi-vulgar observations about human excretory functions, general cultural chauvinism with particular elitist condescension toward people who don’t live in big cities and, above all, overwhelming contempt for small-town politicians.” But his follow-up joke about Peoria was just plain lame.
Here it is: “I’m thinking that ‘Peoria’ sounds like a combination of ‘pee’ and ‘euphoria,’ which is something many people can relate to, especially after a long car ride, which Peorians might want to take to get out of Peoria!”
The memory of this failed humor might have faded quickly, were it not for Billy Dennis, author of the Peoria Pundits blog, who laid into Weingarten in a post titled “Mayor Defends Peoria’s Honor Against Beltway Smartass.” Dennis praised Ardis (obviously); he also panned Weingarten for “embrac[ing] hoary old clichés,” particularly the one about “playing in Peoria.”
Then, on July 4, things took a bizarre turn. Weingarten himself weighed in at Peoria Pundits, accusing Dennis of missing his column’s point in strangely juvenile terms. “It was a joke, dork,” Weingarten wrote (emphasis added). “It was a joke about me and my cultural condescension. . . . ”
Over to Dennis: “Woo hoo! I’ve been called a ‘dork’ before, but never by someone from the Washington Post. . . . ” Back to Weingarten: “Gonna explain this only once. See if you can understand, so you don’t make the same bonehead mistake again. A cliché is not badly used if it is used ironically. . . . ” Dennis said Weingarten is thin-skinned. Weingarten reiterated that Dennis is a “dork.” Dennis said Weingarten is the real dork.
Thrust! Parry! Thrust again! But then — just when it seemed these mutual accusations of dorkiness might go on forever — a reader jumped in and took Weingarten to task for his “pee joke.” Weingarten responded by saying, essentially, that to condemn pee jokes on July 4 was unpatriotic.
Et voila! Just like that, the Dennis-Weingarten enmity was forgotten as the two men traded scatological puns. Dennis: “Urine the minority if you think pee jokes are patriotic.” Weingarten: “I think we’ve had enough of your mindless bladder for one day.” Weingarten: “Ureters have long grown tired of this pissing match.” Dennis: “Urinal lot of trouble if you keep this up, Mister.” Dennis: “I kidney you not, puns are not funny.” Weingarten: “Depends.”
And so it ended — except for the uncomfortable fact that this entire exchange, which countless readers witnessed thanks to a link from über-media-aggregator Jim Romenesko, is now preserved in cyberspace for all eternity. (Incidentally, the Journal Star didn’t run the column.)
In an e-mail to the Phoenix, Weingarten struck a rueful tone. “I made the rookie error of actually getting angry at what he wrote, which made me sound pompous — a mistake, for which I tried to atone.” Mission only partly accomplished. The example is new, but the cautionary lesson isn’t. Journalists, everywhere: think before you blog.