Ink by the Barrel

“[Tommy] Lasorda used to say, “‘Don’t get in arguments with people who buy their ink by the barrel.’” — Bobby Valentine, quoted in The New York Times, March 13, 2012

“Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”– William I. Greener Jr., quoted in TheWall Street Journal, Sept. 28, 1978

A hogshead of ink

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” — attributed to Mark Twain

And all along I thought it was H. L. Mencken. At the risk of picking a fight with better-informed lexicographers, it appears that the originator of the quote is Bill Greener, who was a press aide to Gerald Ford and Donald Rumsfeld in the 1970s.

Now known as Greener’s Law, the “ink by the barrel” phrase needs updating for the digital age. Never pick a fight with someone who …

a) gets more than a million uniques a month

b) has a black belt in SEO techniques

c) has more than 500,000 Twitter followers

d) [your suggestion here]

William I. Greener Jr., born in 1925 and still kicking, as far as I know, was a savvy public relations man. In a speech to students at the Air War College, Mr. Greener, who was once Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said:

“Too many generals have in the past lived by Socrates’ observation, ‘It is the mark of a good general to reveal the good and hide the bad'; rather than Alexander Hamilton’s conclusion, ‘It is a government of the people. They will govern best when given the facts.’ ”

As an adviser to Donald Rumsfeld and other Republicans, and later to Big Pharma companies, Mr. Greener honed his skills at crisis communications. Having watched Watergate unfold and seen the damage that coverups can do, he embraced the adage “Be honest, be truthful, be quick.”

When asked how to craft a communications strategy for dealing with bad news or negative publicity, he said: “My answer is quit figuring out how to say it, and try it simply and straightforward and as quickly as possible.”

P.S.: There is no record of Mark Twain ever saying or writing the “Never pick a fight” quote. Darn.


About PHL

Peter H. Lewis played second base on the Central Park Press League Champion New York Times softball team, was Assistant Financial Editor, and personally registered the domain after his editors decided this Internet thing was probably a fad.
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9 Responses to Ink by the Barrel

  1. Darrell Patrick says:

    Your a, b, and c options are good but they are missing that the original quote was about a large institution (newspapers). Any one of yours could probably apply to a single famous internet persona (ie Chad Ochocinco). To modernize the quote and keep it’s context I think “Never pick a fight with someone who buys their bandwidth by the gigabyte” would be more befitting.

  2. Harry Eagar says:

    I guess it’s OK to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel nowadays. Men who want to be president of the United States seem to think so, anyway.

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  4. Many thanks for your lexicographical research, and your it appears that…

    Found my way to your post after four or five pages of misc. Google searching for the original phrase and source. I wish I were the kind of person who could ignore “quotations” that are attributed precisely but inaccurately, but I’m not. Maybe one day I’ll learn not to pick fights with on OCD that occupies brain cells by the handful.

  5. Ooh — just found more research that suggests Congressman Charles Brownson, at least as early as 1964…

    Google Books
    My Indiana
    By Irving Leibowitz
    Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
    Pg. 76:
    Former Congressman Charles Brownson, Indianapolis Republican, used to say, “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

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