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A column about my last column

Tuesday, Jan 13, 2004

I have never written a column about a previous column. A column stands on its own and should not necessitate an explanation.

But to my great surprise, my last column, a parody of President Jimmy Carter’s views, elicited so much response, so much of which was confused about what I had written, that I feel I owe it to my readers to analyze what happened.

I made up an interview with former President Jimmy Carter in which he sharply criticized the “Lord of the Rings” films for celebrating the military, war and violence.

As I began the piece with the byline “Prager News Service,” I was quite certain that affixing my own name to a news service made it clear at the outset that what was to follow was a spoof. I was also confident that the statements attributed to President Carter seemed sufficiently absurd (such as his attack on “Lord of the Rings” for depicting trees going to war) to further reinforce the satirical nature of the column. And for those who missed those two clues, I wrote at the end: “This story is fictional, but not false.”

I was deluged with mail that fell into four categories.

First were those who told me they laughed themselves silly.

Second were admirers of President Carter who were furious with me for attributing to him statements that he never made.

Third were those who took the column literally and thanked me for bringing to light President Carter’s attack on “Lord of the Rings.”

Fourth were those who didn’t understand my last line. “What do you mean it is fiction but not false?” was a typical question. As was “What part of your column was fiction?”

I thank those in the first category and will respond to each of the other three.

To those who accused me of journalistic irresponsibility for making up quotations, I have three responses:

First, what I wrote was a parody and I declared it as such. A reader can accuse me of making up statements that have no relation to President Carter’s actual views, in which case my piece failed as satire. But that would constitute incompetence, not irresponsibility.

Second, I have long admired Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist William Safire, who has on a number of occasions written what I consider to be brilliant columns describing what major world figures are thinking. Is that irresponsible? Of course not. Every reader understands that Safire is offering his take on what these people are thinking, not reporting their actual thoughts.

Third, in 21 years as a radio talk show host, I have never attributed a statement to anyone for which I did not have a reputable source. Furthermore, I have particularly high standards to protect the dignity of public figures. For example, I may have been the only talk show host who never allowed a Monica Lewinsky joke to be broadcast on my show.

To the third category of reader, those who did not understand that this was fiction, I wish you had read the column in its entirety and/or more carefully.

But what is most interesting here is how many people thought the statements I made up really were said by President Carter. Jonah Goldberg, an astute observer of contemporary life, actually excerpted my column, “Jimmy Carter: ‘Compassion for Mordor,'” on his National Review Web site. When he later realized it was a spoof, he immediately posted: “UPDATE! I’m an idjit! (sic) Like five e-mailers sent me this with excerpts. I read a ways into and then posted. I didn’t read the last line. It is a parody! D’oh! My bad, my apologies.”

Why did Jonah Goldberg and so many others believe that Jimmy Carter called for “compassion for Mordor” and made all the other statements I invented? Because anyone familiar with Mr. Carter’s views would have every reason to believe so.

The fourth category of reader response saddened me. My last sentence of the column, “This story is fictional, but not false,” apparently confused many people. How, they wondered, could something fiction not be false?

School apparently failed these people.

As I wrote to so many correspondents that I feared developing carpal tunnel syndrome, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other great writers wrote great truths through fiction. On the other hand, while the phone directory is non-fiction, it contains no truths. I am saddened to learn that so many otherwise intelligent people confuse fiction with falsehood. The best fiction often reveals more truths than most of the non-fiction that is written.

That was my intent. I declared my column fiction, lest anyone not pick up on the intended satire. But I believe that what I wrote tells the truth about a man who, his admirable personal work for the poor notwithstanding, is deeply morally confused about good and evil, who damaged his country as president, and who hurts it today.

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