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From AJR,   October/November 2008  issue

Language Barriers   

The New York Times’ handling of Jesse Jackson’s crude remark about Barack Obama rekindles the debate about how news outlets should deal with coarse language.


By Beth Macy
     

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in July that he wanted to separate Barack Obama from his testicles — or, to be precise, "I want to cut his nuts off" — the incident was a brief campaign trail distraction. Jackson apologized, Obama accepted the apology and cable moved on to the next political kerfuffle.

But the episode lingered on the pages and blogs of the New York Times for a solid three weeks. At issue wasn't Jackson's temperament or the generational divide separating black leaders or even the larger context of his remark, which was that Jackson thought Obama was "talking down to black people."

The focus instead was the way the Times and other news outlets had recounted the event. While the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune printed Jackson's remarks in full and the Washington Post said Jackson "wanted to castrate the presumptive Democratic nominee," the New York Times clutched its style manual firmly to its breast, simply describing Jackson's remarks as "critical and crude" without quoting them.

Some praised the newspaper's editors for maintaining civility in uncivil times, but many argued that they were being self-righteous and kindergarten-teacher prissy at the expense of clarity. Heck, they wrote (though in all likelihood they used a more emphatic word), the paper's prim approach no doubt led many readers to imagine Jackson's remarks were even worse than they were.

Just days after obit writers praised the late comedian George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," the Jackson brouhaha left journalists and media critics debating where exactly the nebulous line of decorum should be drawn.

Was the Times' demure approach yet more evidence of the growing irrelevance of old-school newspapers in the anything-goes Internet era? Had the Times, in its effort to protect readers, simply confused them? Or was this an admirable attempt to uphold standards in a coarsening world?

Seventeen years ago, I profiled an expletive-spewing real-estate developer and former sports reporter who was ascending to fame as a Democratic political consultant. It had been a decade or more since newspapers stopped writing "criminal assault" in place of "rape," although Americans had not yet braced themselves for Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions and Tony Soprano and cyberspace rankings of hot high school girls.

Anyone who's seen Dave "Mudcat" Saunders on television or read about him in magazines and newspapers knows why I had a hard time quoting him in a family newspaper such as the Roanoke Times, where I work:

One season [in the early '70s] he was assigned to cover the Baltimore Colts, the football team that starred Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. Saunders was hanging out in the Colts' locker room after one game when Unitas had an impromptu press conference and announced he had time for one final question...

"Johnny, I've been watching you all year now as you go into the shower and come out, and I just have one thing to ask: Why do you always dry your [privates] before you dry your head?"

The bracketed word, by the way, was not "nuts" (to help your guessing: it starts with a "b"), and Saunders was summarily ejected from the scene.

According to a recent profile, Saunders is still somebody who "swears like he's being paid by the four-letter word."

"I feel s----y about it," he told Matt Labash in a June story for The Weekly Standard. Labash continued: "But as he once told a woman who stood up after a speech he gave to a Democratic audience to say he made compelling points, but they'd be more effective without the swearing, 'Lady, there's nothing I can do about it. Because if you'd seen what I've seen from elitist Democrats, you'd swear too.'"

Generally offered behind the scenes, Saunders' freewheeling observations are a far cry from Vice President Dick Cheney telling Sen. Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate to "go fuck yourself." (The New York Times described the 2004 incident by writing that Cheney had used "an obscenity" in a clash with the senator while the Los Angeles Times opted for an ellipsis in place of the offending word. The Washington Post quoted the vice president verbatim.)

Quoting colorful characters without censoring everything that comes out of their mouths is a challenge most journalists face. And while the incidents don't typically make national news, the decision-making process can be equally dicey.

It's an issue Gene Foreman wrestled with for decades as the longtime managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and later as a journalism professor at Penn State. "It's a constant tension between journalists' desire to achieve verisimilitude.. and to pull our punches when there is profane language involved because our audience might not accept it," Foreman says.

Quoting profanity verbatim is tempting for reporters trying to accurately describe a person's character, but it's a different ballgame entirely when you're the editor whose phone number is also the paper's complaint hotline, and an irate mother or elementary school teacher is on the line.

Known as the Inquirer's "word mogul" for the stamp of approval he had to give on all matters of taste, Foreman argues that newspapers ought to continue setting a high threshold for letting bad language into newspapers — both in print and on their Web sites. It might be appropriate for newspapers to make exceptions online with a disclaimer requiring the user to click on a link to read it, but he maintains that such exceptions should be rare.

Still, Foreman believes that decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. "There are words that may be the same but the circumstances are different, and so the rulings may be different on the same word, depending on who said it, when or where they said it."

When Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia and announced that a certain matter had "pissed" him off, the paper quoted him to the letter. "I put my 'mogulizing' stamp on it that time," Foreman recalls. "But the next time, when it was some ordinary person in a private interview saying they were 'pissed off,' I would say no."

Reporters and copy editors groaned about the lack of consistency. The ruling shouldn't depend solely on a list of forbidden words, Foreman argued, but rather: Which is more important, the value of the news or the degree of the offense? "If we're going to cross the line, it ought to be for something really, really important," he says.

Consistency is especially tough to achieve with multiple editors and sections, where the word mogul on Saturday night might not be the same person making the call on Tuesday morning. When Cheney thundered at Leahy on the Senate floor, then-Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. defended the paper's decision to use Cheney's exact word, telling Post media writer Howard Kurtz: "When the vice president of the United States says it to a senator in the way in which he said it on the Senate floor, readers need to judge for themselves what the word is because we don't play games at The Washington Post and use dashes."

But when the Post summarized Jackson's remark about Obama rather than quoting him verbatim, Foreman the word mogul wondered: Was the Post now playing games?

A similar parallel can be drawn to the 1998 incident in which the Post refused to quote a joke that Sen. John McCain told about Chelsea Clinton and Janet Reno, saying it was "too vicious to print." It was most definitely cruel and tasteless when McCain said to a group of Republican supporters, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?...Because her father is Janet Reno." But an argument can easily be made that the joke offered important insights into his character.

In April 2006, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story about a school board and police investigation into an explicit, student-circulated list of the 25 most attractive girls at Mt. Lebanon High School. "Each girl is assigned a letter grade for her breasts, buttocks and face, followed by a brief description of each girl in crude and vulgar terms," the paper reported.

A few weeks later, Salon.com printed excerpts of the actual list, and readers who may have initially dismissed the prank as "boys will be boys" suddenly understood its unbridled savageness.

Exact words matter.

When college students took to the streets en masse to protest the Vietnam War in the 1960s, cries to "Repeal the War," "Stop the War" and similar exhortations registered barely a footnote in the nation's consciousness, according to Temple University law professor Burton Caine, writing in a recent issue of The American Scholar. "But when the cream of the nation's youth resorted to 'Fuck the Draft,' middle-class mothers were devastated that their children would resort to such vulgarity! What the children were saying was that their elders were willing to tolerate war, atrocities and slaughter of civilians of a different race. But they were unwilling to tolerate their children using 'bad words!'"

A First Amendment scholar, Caine was among the throngs of readers who publicly urged the New York Times to loosen up in the wake of the Jackson/Obama flap. Caine says it's hypocritical for the Times to praise Carlin for reducing the shock value of the seven words, as language columnist William Safire did, and yet refuse to publish them. "It is wrong to praise expression and refuse to print the words," he was quoted as saying in a column by Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt.

"The Times virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones," Hoyt wrote, quoting the newspaper's Manual of Style and Usage. "In part the concern is for the newspaper's welcome in classrooms and on breakfast tables in diverse communities nationwide. But a larger concern is for the newspaper's character. The Times differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse."

Had the "nuts" quotation been up to Hoyt, he would have approved it not just for the sake of clarity but also because it "spoke to a deep anger" toward Obama. Craig Whitney, the paper's standards editor, was vacationing when the flap occurred — "and glad in a way" to have missed weighing in on the matter, he says, chuckling. "They didn't use the circumlocution; they just described the character of the remark," he explains, conceding that the description was too vague. Editors could have gotten closer to Jackson's true meaning had they "thought about it harder."

In 2006, Whitney personally put his stamp of approval on the Times' quoting President George W. Bush telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair that "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." Few readers complained about that one, although the Times is regularly accused of inserting politics into its decisions. "They'll say we let Bush say 'shit' while we censor Jesse Jackson's remark: 'The Times is a liberal newspaper; of course they'd make Republicans look bad.'"

The paper makes more exceptions now than it did 40 or 50 years ago, Whitney adds. "I'm 65 soon, and I can remember when you didn't hear strong words except in violent arguments or bars..maybe in a newsroom. Now, I go out on the street to buy a sandwich, and I'm going to hear every single one of [Carlin's] forbidden words." The New York Times has allowed the F-word onto its pages just one time in history — when it reprinted the text of the Starr Report, which quoted Monica Lewinsky saying Bill Clinton needed to "acknowledge..that he helped fuck up my life."

Though the Times doesn't want to appear out of touch, Whitney said the paper takes pride in drawing the line at the conservative end of the language spectrum. "That's one of the things that makes the Times different from other papers."

In a February article about U2 singer Bono's campaign to raise money for charity by promoting his Red brand of products, Times reporter Ron Nixon quoted a critic who had launched a Web site called BUYLESSCRAP.com. "The copy desk cut out the name because it said the NYT does not use 'crap' in the paper," Nixon wrote in an e-mail interview. Instead, the name of the site was deleted and the sentence changed to: "Ben Davis of San Francisco, who created a Red parody online that says "Buy(Less)," is encouraging customers to give..."

Caine, the law professor, finds the Times' keep-it-clean sentiment wrongheaded and holier-than-thou. "I take them at their word; they are the gold standard," he says. "They will not be censored as they would if they had a TV program, but what they're doing is much more deleterious than anything the government does. What they're saying is: 'This is the proper way of communicating; this is the American way.'

"They told me that thousands of copies of their paper circulate in the high schools, as if there's something harmful in children reading certain words, when actually this is the language of children."

Caine likes to bring his old "Fuck the Draft" poster to class when he lectures on the First Amendment. "I got it from my kid's bedroom!" he says. "Fourth graders, they know these words. They know they're not supposed to use them because they'll upset you, the adult. If we were allowed to use them, do you think anybody in his right mind would say the word 'nuts'? Who would get excited about that? What these newspapers are doing is making themselves irrelevant."

Arlene Morgan couldn't disagree more. An associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Morgan praised the Times for sticking to its standards. "My kids may not wince at crude language because it is so commonplace these days," she says, "but I still think the newspaper we read every morning should respect its readers' — who are mostly older — sensibilities."

The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times printed what Jackson said in full, while the tabloid New York Post used "NUTS!" as a front-page headline. Newspapers that relied on the Associated Press version of the story — and that would be most — followed the stalwart AP Stylebook, which urges journalists to "Try to find a way to give the reader a sense of what was said without using the specific [obscene] word or phrase."

From the AP version: Jackson "used a slang reference to wanting to cut off Obama's testicles."

As newspapers grapple with ever-shifting community standards, drawing the line has never been more challenging — better do it with a pencil these days — especially as more eyes shift to the digital world, where almost anything goes.

"I think we are more willing to tolerate coarse language now," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. "There are very few newspapers that have held on to such firm standards as the New York Times'. It's possible of course to create a list of words you can't use — they typically refer to excrement or bodily functions or sex. But when you draw lines that way, you end up excluding a lot of language that my 8-year-old uses."

Digital exposure has definitely lowered the bar of what's fit to print, from anonymous user comments on newspaper Web sites to the @#$! that passes for conversation on my teenager's MySpace page.

McBride likens the loosening of standards to the arguments she once had with her teenagers over their use of the word "friggin'," a battle she ultimately lost. "They overwhelmed me," she sighs. "I just couldn't win it."

But McBride believes that newspapers shouldn't use foul language unless there's a compelling news reason for doing so. After all, it's not like coarse language is going to suddenly lure younger readers to the printed word. Instead, it may very well drive off the remaining newspaper regulars.

Rather than adopt expletives from the Web, McBride says, what papers can and should emulate is its tone — by insisting on a more conversational style that avoids "complex sentence structures and often artificial intellectualism and obtuse writing that can alienate younger readers."

Los Angeles Times Deputy Managing Editor Melissa McCoy formalized similar ideas in a recent rewrite of her newspaper's Taste and Obscenities policy, which nodded to looser writing styles online but also asserted that crude language should only be used — both in print and online — when it is essential to conveying a main point in the story. Printing Jackson's remark verbatim was therefore OK, but when one of David Letterman's writers used the borderline-bad phrase "pissed off" in a quote about the writers' strike, copy editors intervened and inserted an ellipsis instead.

In conservative Idaho Falls, Idaho, Post Register Executive Editor Dean Miller tries to balance authenticity with political correctness. Ribbed by his former Poynter ethics fellowship colleagues for having the foulest mouth west of the Mississippi, Miller stations himself in the middle of the newsroom, surrounded by reporters and other editors, a significant number of whom happen to be Mormon. When Miller curses, the staffers don't care that he is literally the son of a sailor; to them, it's offensive.

He's trying to be more careful, he swears.

"What I've learned here is there's a real stress point in taking the Lord's name in vain and using scatological words — even if it's just me talking to someone on the phone" within earshot of an employee, he says.

He grapples with the issue in print as well. When a freelancer covering a nearby mining and logging community peppered her sentences with her subjects' trademark expletives, Miller deleted or altered them. The reporter wrote a passionate defense of leaving the quotes in, arguing that the way the subjects spoke was central to their culture and therefore to the stories. Miller took the issue up with his publisher, who'd been on a crusade about the coarsening of the culture.

"He sort of relented," Miller recalls. The rule the paper uses now is one most papers have come to adopt: Obscene language is allowed only if it is germane to the subject of the story or, in rare cases, to convey personality. For example, if a child is thrown out of school for calling a teacher a name, the newspaper doesn't necessarily include the name. But if the story is about the policy — i.e. is this word so terrible that it should get someone kicked out? — the word is permitted.

With the exception of one word..the one that even Miller doesn't use — if his mother's within earshot. "I don't think we'd ever use that word unless maybe we were in Vermont," Sen. Leahy's home state, when Cheney let loose.

Newspapers' squeamishness over language often extends to coverage of stories involving sex, from rape and child sexual abuse to political sex scandals, argues Doug Pardue, public service editor and reporter for the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. "It's the same reason that papers didn't go after the story" about former Sen. John Edwards' affair. "We don't particularly like unseemly stories. It makes us feel cheapened, and so our guard is down in that area."

Refusing to let supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer dictate their coverage is a badge of honor for newspapers. "And yet it took the legitimate press eight months to break the Edwards story!" Pardue adds. "And much of that time he was an active candidate [for the Democratic presidential nomination]. That's the more serious question than the use of cuss words."

I called my favorite foul-mouthed story subject, Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, since he had been working as Edwards' senior strategist for rural America, when the story broke. In response to Pardue's charge, Saunders predictably let loose a string of Carlin's pet words, indicating he did not in any way agree with Pardue's claim.

But for the first time in his life, he didn't want to be quoted about Edwards, beyond saying "he's my friend and I love him."

Asked about his proclivity for swearing, Saunders says, "I don't swear just for the sake of swearing. Mine is a rhythm-based deal is what it is."

In the American print media, his expletives are usually bracketed or dashed-out, with the exception of some political blogs and magazines that quote him verbatim. "With newspaper reporters, I ask 'em to clean it up, to take out the F-bombs. And on television I try to be sensitive to the fact that a child can walk by a TV and hear me going berserk; I've got children.

"They like me best over there in Britain," Saunders adds. Recent articles in the London Times and Daily Telegraph featured full-throttle Saunders-speak, although his Dick Cheneyisms were obscured by asterisks in a London Times story about Obama's need to embrace rural voters:

"He should say, 'I'm a black guy. I'm not gonna take the Michael Jackson treatment, but the problems of South Side Chicago are the same problems of the Appalachian mountains.' Big sonsofabitches are kicking the little sonsofabitches in the ass. Now I'm one of the little sonsofabitches, so I'm pissed off. Inside every rural Republican is a rural Democrat begging to get out. But we always trip over our johnsons."...

He says a "cultural wedge" has been placed between Democrats and Scots-Irish voters just as Hadrian built a wall to keep them back in Britain. "It is the same exact people. It's the same f***ing bunch of fight, sing, drink, pray people who are over there who are over here in these mountains."

Saunders' only complaint with the British press stems from a 2006 article in the Daily Telegraph in which he was quoted as saying, "I chastened them a little," referring to Democratic caucus leaders. "I have never said 'chastened' in my life!" he exclaims. "The biggest problem for me is, I don't get misquoted; they just can't understand me."

If only it were so easy on this side of the pond. For now anyway, he's working on his second book — and trying, he says (not very convincingly), to avoid the media's glare. The book is called "The Half-Assed Christian's Guide to Living: Psalms of a Pathological Heathen." Asked if his editor and publisher will approve the title as is, Saunders said it had never occurred to him that they wouldn't — although, on second thought, it would be nice to get a New York Times review.

Should that actually be up for consideration, the reviewer might have to face off with Craig Whitney, the paper's standards guru, who has been known to edit out many an objectionable title, whether it's part of the name of a band or the title of a book.

"Very often I've said, if the subtitle is just there to titillate with dirty words, cut it out," Whitney says. Book publishers "have freedom of the press on their presses, but on ours..it's our newspaper, and we'll speak how we want."

Beth Macy (beth.macy@roanoke.com), the families beat reporter for the Roanoke Times, wrote about writers' sources of inspiration in AJR's August/September issue.