Never Argue With A Man Who Buys Ink By The Barrel?

Last week, I asked readers to weigh in on this question: In the age of social media, is it a good idea to occasionally pick fights with the press? Does the expression “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel” still apply?

That old expression, which traces back to the 1960s, advised spokespersons not to argue with the all-powerful press, since they owned the “ink” – and thus the power to publish their own storylines – while spokespersons owned little ink and were often unable to respond to media criticism.

Given that social media has given companies, organizations, and individuals the ability to respond to negative or incorrect stories, I wondered: Is the expression “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel” a relic of a bygone era?

Should you argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel?

Here’s what you had to say:

John Barnett said: “By picking a fight, you are simply giving many news organizations their best gift: controversy and conflict. Gives otherwise routine or less interesting stories longer legs.”

Rodger Johnson wrote: “You never want to argue with a fool with access to a blog or buys ink by the barrel. Reason? A fool likes to hear his own opinion and he’s always right no matter what reason or reality dictates.”

Mary Denihan agreed, saying: “I would never pick a fight with the press. And speaking of blogs, would never argue with anonymous bloggers. We now have more tools than ever to set the record straight, so we don’t have to sink or swim in their ink anymore.”

Marcus said: “Communicators should be wary of anyone with a larger reach. Most company Facebook pages and Twitter accounts don’t reach the audience that even a mid-sized media outlet can. [But] social media make it a whole lot easier to react when the fight is brought to you.”

And David Z added: For me, you don’t even have to so-called fight. Just give your side, be truthful, and maybe hope for the best.”

 

I agree that picking a fight is generally a bad idea, but I’m not an absolutist on that point. For example, conservative politicians aiming to attract the base are often able to gain traction by “picking a fight” with the media. So in some cases, battling publicly against the press can help (see this story about Marco Rubio vs. Univision).

I agree with Marcus that “social media make it a whole lot easier to react when the fight is brought to you,” but I’d add that social media can also be used to preempt a story about you that is about to run. It allows you to release the news first, manage the initial messaging, and combat false allegations before they’re even published.

In short, “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel” no longer fully applies in the age of social media. I’d change it to “Think hard before arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

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