A few days ago, a story made the rounds of the liberal blogosphere that caused more than one heart to surge with spiteful glee.
Several political websites, a prominent cable news commentator and one New York Times columnist repeated a sensational, phony tidbit that would've been too good to be true on Mitt Romney's worst day.
According to a bunch of writers who should've known better, Paul Ryan had begun referring to his running mate behind his back as "the Stench." Supposedly demoralized by recent poll numbers, the Republican vice presidential candidate was rumored to be distancing himself from the man who snatched him from the obscurity of the dysfunctional Congress for a doomed run for the second highest office in the land.
The tongue-wagging was based on a piece by Politico columnist Roger Simon, a guy who occasionally dips his pen in an often dry inkwell called satire. Mr. Simon used an actual quote from The New York Times in which a former Republican political director said Mr. Ryan would have to "wash the stench of Romney off of him" if he wanted to run for national office again.
Being an astute political journalist with decades of straight reporting and pontificating under his belt, Mr. Simon saw comedy gold in the comment and ran with it.
He wrote a column that painted Mr. Ryan in full, Palinesque rogue mode, reportedly saying on his campaign bus, "If Stench calls, take a message," and "Tell Stench I'm having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later."
Mr. Simon then went on to describe Mr. Ryan's ill-received speech at the AARP conference in New Orleans last week. Even if the irony of Mr. Simon's previous paragraphs eluded most because it seemed plausible, what followed should have tipped off even the densest person that he was having a little fun at the Romney/Ryan campaign's expense:
"Ryan brought his 78-year-old mother with him and introduced her to the audience, which is usually a crowd pleaser. But when Ryan began talking about repealing 'Obamacare' because he said it would harm seniors, one woman in the crowd shouted, 'Lie!' Another shouted 'Liar!' and the crowd booed Ryan lustily. Who boos a guy in front of his 78-year-old mother? Other 78-year-old mothers."
Unfortunately for Roger Simon, his column was a perfectly modulated piece of political satire in an age that has lost the capacity to understand irony at first glance.
MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell reported it as gospel. The Daily Kos, News One and Gawker had fun with the tidbit.
Even Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman missed the intentional satire of Mr. Simon's column while blogging about it.
The whole Ryan-calls-Romney-Stench meme is initially hard for liberals to resist because it fits the prevailing narrative that the wheels are falling off the bus of the Republican presidential campaign. Because that campaign is such a rolling disaster, even the most absurd scenarios take on a patina of believability, especially when repeated by normally reliable liberal sources. But just because the Romney/Ryan ticket is about to get whumped like a red-headed stepchild doesn't excuse the liberal commentariat's descent into gullibility.
Satire, especially the obvious kind, is supposed to be something liberals intuitively "get." It is conservatives who send around earnest, irony-free emails about President Barack Obama's intention to corral white people into concentration camps before surrendering American sovereignty to the United Nations on Hitler's birthday.
I don't mind conservative stupidity, but liberal idiocy and gullibility make my teeth hurt. Once I wrote a column suggesting that I had eavesdropped on a private conversation between the Obamas while hiding in their hotel room closet. I got dozens of calls and emails from Obama supporters demanding that I apologize for revealing how easy it was to get past the Secret Service. It was appalling.
I understand how the "Stench" meme caught fire. Even the most reasonable liberals partake in bloodlust when things are going their way, but this is no time to be willfully stupid. There are more than enough legitimate targets in the Romney/Ryan campaign to ridicule without abandoning the capacity for critical thought. We shouldn't be like those conservatives who never catch on that Stephen Colbert is only pretending to be a right-winger.
When we misunderstand satire and repeat it as truth, we should have the grace to admit it. Rather than pen a retraction, Mr. Krugman, one of my favorite columnists, doubled down with a single sentence literally exuding gracelessness: "Update: OK, the word is that this was really clumsy satire."
Ugh! There are days when even I hate liberals.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.