Editorial: The difference between funny and mean

Aug. 29, 2013 @ 01:14 AM

It is true that journalists, as a group, have a reputation for being bad at math.

That is a generalization, of course – here at the News-Topic we have at least one person in the newsroom who did better at math than anything else, until reaching college-level classes involving calculus and advanced trigonometry – but if you pick a journalist at random and demand a calculation, you’re apt to hit a dry well.

That said, Gov. Pat McCrory’s dig at journalists during a visit to Asheville this week, saying they didn’t understand his tax and budget priorities because those are “too complex” – “They don't have economics degrees, they've not been in business,” he said – was sophomoric and likely to come back to bite him in the end.

To begin with, a good many journalists, including some in Raleigh, do have economics degrees. Some have degrees in journalism or English, and some majored in history, political science, math … and some never finished college. Or started it. As in any profession, people have a variety of backgrounds and strengths.

Second, there are liberals with economics degrees who say that McCrory – who has degrees in education and political science, NOT economics – is full of hot air, particularly when it comes to economics. Who, then, is to be believed? Either side may be right, but that can’t be determined by the degrees each have hanging on the wall.

More important, though, the suggestion that an economics degree is needed to understand basic economics or business is ludicrous. Most of the legislators who wrote the budget don't have one. It’s a bar that even most business owners would fail to clear. In fact, the majority of North Carolina residents don’t have a college degree at all; does that mean they should be trusted with nothing?

Don’t misunderstand: We know McCrory was making a joke, mostly. But in using humor to attack, he hit too broad a target. He also keeps saying things like this that are not just dismissive of others but belittling. He sometimes speaks as if it hasn’t occurred to him that everything he says is being recorded and will be heard by people other than the person or group he is addressing.

Perhaps McCrory is trying to be the kind of happy warrior Ronald Reagan was, tough but disarming and humorous. But Reagan was more likely to use humor to turn the tables on his critics without attacking them, as when he said during a debate with Walter Mondale that he would not use Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” against him. That ended talk of whether Reagan was too old to be president. "There you go again" dismissed his opponent without the hard edges of saying, "Stop lying."

As any writer can tell you, being funny is the hardest thing to do with words. But it’s a little easier, and audiences are more forgiving, when the jokes are gentle rather than harsh or turned inward rather than aimed outward.