From AJR, November 2000 issue
What guidelines do news organizations use when it comes to publishing or airing offensive language?
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
"DAMN" IS NO LONGER a bad word. At least not much of one. "Hell"? Nope, not a bad word either. "Ass"? Well, that's generally OK, too. But "asshole"? Now that's a little more touchy.
The news media exhibited just how touchy in September after presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke the vulgarism to his running mate, Dick Cheney, in an aside that was accidentally picked up by microphones. The fact that Bush called New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a "major league asshole" was deemed news by most outlets. But in characterizing the quote, news consumers were treated to everything from the full word to an "a" followed by dashes to "expletive" or "obscenity" to, in one instance, "rectal aperture." At least a few news consumers were left wondering, "So what exactly did he call him?"
Editors interviewed for this article say their decisions on how to spell out Bush's remark did not involve much debate. But the incident shows how the media tiptoe through popular culture, carefully trying to pick colorful stories without grabbing too much colorful language. While many newspapers follow the Associated Press' guidelines--"Do not use [obscenities, profanities, vulgarities] in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them"--the interpretation of those guidelines is highly subjective. In a society where it's hard to go a day without hearing the once-feared queen of all curse words--the f-word in all its creative constructions--how do the media deal with foul language?
On a case-by-case basis is the answer, and with varying degrees of strictness. The New York Times is probably the most conservative. One-and-a-half pages of its style guide explain the reasoning for the we-will-not-print-bad-words philosophy and cite the three instances where the Times permitted foul language in print (the Watergate transcripts, the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the Starr report). The style guide reads:
"But the Times virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones. 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, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes."
In the case of Bush's gaffe, the Times said the governor used "an obscenity," which Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor, later pointed out was slightly incorrect; it's a vulgarity. (An obscenity is something morally offensive; a vulgarity is just plain crude.) Siegal says there was "almost no discussion" on how the paper would play the remark. "By our standards, it was clear to all hands that the word, and the context, didn't qualify for an exception," he says.
At other news organizations--the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters, to name a few--the fact that the word was the crux of the story translated into almost no discussion before leaving the whole word in for the public. "I felt comfortable with letting the tape speak for itself in that case," says Bruce Drake, NPR's vice president, news and information. "There are various levels of profanity...and I don't think that this rose to that [high a] level."
Says Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll: "I didn't make that decision, but I would have printed it.... Because that seems to me a rare case where a word is essential to the meaning of a news event."
The Post's policy is not to print profane or vulgar words "that would be offensive to family readers of a newspaper," Coll says, "unless that word is essential to the news or to the meaning of an important story, and reaching that judgment often involves a sense of the word's offensiveness on the one hand and its importance on the other hand." Here, the Bush quote passed.
The standard for appropriate language, Coll says, is harder to define these days. Instead of three television networks, the public is exposed to a plethora of Web sites and channels upon channels on cable. There's no distinct standard for language. "What reference points do you choose?... What happens after 8 o'clock on prime time?" he asks. "Is it what Leno says? Is it what Letterman says?... Is it something less than that?"
Clearly, language is changing quickly, and the acceptable-in-any-company bar is lower than ever. But choosing what to print or air is still a fine, sometimes inexplicable line. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel printed September 25: "We played like (expletive)," [Arizona Cardinal quarterback Jake] Plummer said. "We didn't play worth a damn. We laid a turd. We couldn't do anything."
Anyone would agree that there are more naughty words now in movies, television shows and teenage conversation than there were 10 or 20 years ago. But Reinhold Aman can pinpoint three times in history when the threshold shifted significantly. Aman, a philologist, or lover of words, who holds a Ph.D. in German language and medievel literature, says World War II--where soldiers didn't mince words--the cultural revolution in the 1960s and the growth of uncensored cable TV have loosened our tongues. "Some newspapers have loosened up a bit," as well, he says.
Aman is a bit of an expert on filthy language. Since 1977, he's been editor and publisher of Maledicta, a 12-volume collection of vulgarities in print, speech and graffiti. He's been monitoring the George W. Bush comment, and he gives thumbs-down to "the stupid Associated Press"--which simply printed Bush "disparaged Clymer"--and kudos to New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who opted for full disclosure.
Aman was "delighted" that a few publications did the same. "For me, rockets [go] off," he says. "Here's an editor who has guts."
The Dallas Morning News wasn't as feisty, and Patrick Williams, managing editor at the weekly Dallas Observer, criticized the paper's conservatism. "This being 2000, you might think that the Morning News would just go ahead and spell it out for you," Williams wrote in a September 7 column. "It's not like Bush called the reporter an m- - or a c- -, but the Morning News is a family newspaper,' which means the operative year for its staff is 1955, so the reporters there must contend with a fair amount of b- -."
Williams cuts the paper more slack in an interview. "I don't think they have a choice" in not printing obscenities, he says, as the daily's "readership is older and more conservative" than that of his alternative paper. But leaving out what Bush said in this case does seem odd to him, since it was germane to the story--in fact, it was the story. "I think the standards have changed.... Most readers wouldn't flinch at that." However, Williams says he was surprised at the number of papers that did print the word.
The Observer, like most alt weeklies, doesn't shy away from printing just about anything, although the paper won't use profanities in headlines or pull quotes. And if a word is gratuitous or "if it detracts from the meaning, yeah, I'll take a word out," Williams says. Despite his picking on uptight dailies, Williams has seen a change in what's allowed in print. He spent 10 years at the San Antonio Express-News, where he watched "damn" go from being bleeped out to containing dashes to being fully spelled out.
Even the New York Times' style guide allows for occasional uses of "damn" and "hell"--"in combat reporting, for example, to convey the depth of anguish or pain." And Frank Sutherland, editor of Nashville's Tennessean, has witnessed the creeping in of "ass." His paper used to use periods in place of the whole word, but now, if it seems necessary, he says, "we may leave that in a direct quote." And yes, even the New York Times has used that one.
Of course, the Tennessean didn't mean to print "fuck" in a quote in a January 9 story on the sentencing of a man for the murder of a gay Army soldier. "That was a mistake," Sutherland says. "Things have slipped in on us before.... We shouldn't have used it." The paper would have printed "f..k" in that instance.
The Tennessean didn't receive a single phone call of complaint after that mishap, but the Hartford Courant received a couple after it printed the big word. On two occasions. On purpose.
Courant Editor Brian Toolan says it was an easy decision to go with the f-word in the stories, which both ran in the paper's Sunday magazine. One story, published August 1, 1999, was about the successful lawsuit of a convicted murderer, and the word in question ran three times in quotes from a female prison guard who had been beaten and restrained by the convict, and twice in quotes from court transcripts. The other piece, which ran June 18, 2000, was a heart-wrenching first-person essay by a woman whose husband, the head of the state lottery commission, had been killed by a gunman. After almost 2,200 words, the reader faces:
"It takes maybe three seconds to reload a gun, the handsome sergeant will tell me some weeks later. What are three seconds of begging for your life to be spared, lying on a bed of stone in your own blood, a killer methodically reloading, then leveling the barrel at your head? How long must those three second have been, I cannot help but ask myself.
"The last words he heard on this earth were, Fuck you.
"I am amazed that I have not gone out of my mind."
The Washington Post's Coll says he couldn't imagine the Post publishing the f-word, no matter what the circumstances, and Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll says there are some words he couldn't fathom printing unless "the president of the United States used it in the State of the Union address." But Toolan had little problem giving the OK in this personal essay. "I think we would have been cheating her, her emotion, her relating of that emotion and our readers' understanding of her emotional state if we had not used that word."
The Courant, he says, received a few letters and phone calls complaining about its coarseness, "but no real wave of protest." "When you do these things," Toolan says, "you know there are going to be people who will be displeased.... The right thing to do is to run the quote or run the narrative in an unvarnished way."
If a word must be left out, the media face another decision: What should go in the naughty word's place? Reuters' style guide says that the news service should not use euphemisms or dots. Reuters either uses the profanity or not, alerting wire editors of an offensive word's location.
Aman argues against leaving the identity of the word to the reader's imagination, which usually envisions the worst. "If this is an important quote from an important person, either quote the damn thing, or use, if you have to...one or two asterisks," he says, so it won't shock "the most sensitive people."
Miriam Pepper, the readers' representative at the Kansas City Star, agrees, and takes issue with the Star's decision to print "expletive" in the Bush quote. In a September 10 column she writes: "I say let the biggest public figures face having their slip-ups in print, without protection from parentheses. If it's enough of an issue to print, let's not make readers guess what was said."
Overall, Pepper says, readers appreciate the strictness of the Star. (The paper edited out "mad as hell" from a letter to the editor in September.) But in this case, "without the word, you can't make a judgment as an individual," she says.
Of course, readers are as conflicted on this issue as the media. Sutherland says the Tennessean asked readers "of all races" whether the paper should spell out the word "nigger" in quoted material. "African Americans and white Americans weighed in on both sides of that issue," he says, with no majority opinion emerging. The paper still uses "n.....," though the word has slipped in on wire copy, Sutherland says.
At the Kansas City Star, Pepper says, one reader called in to say he was glad he read the actual epithet used by Bush in USA Today, but he also didn't want to read such a vulgarity in his hometown paper.
Conveying dirty words without actually printing them has led some media to get a little creative. Edward W. Jones, editor of Fredericksburg, Virginia's Free Lance-Star, points out that Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry used the humorous and fully understandable "ash soul" in referring to Bush's remark. In 1993, the Free Lance-Star didn't want to use the p-word in the headline over a story about Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband's penis, so the paper printed: "Claiming Husband Raped Her, Woman Severs Offending Organ."
Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden called Bush's comment "a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture," an attempt at a little humor, he says. Pruden used "the most clinical translation I could think of," he says, "to let the reader know that the [presidential candidate] called [Clymer] this...but let's not treat it like it's the end of the world."
That description, however, wasn't enough of a clue for a few readers, who called the paper saying that they still didn't know what Bush had called Clymer.
THE BROADCAST OUTLETS ENCOUNTER additional regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, which can revoke a license or issue a fine for the airing of obscene or indecent material. To qualify as obscene speech, the FCC says material must appeal "to the prurient interest"; "describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct"; and "lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Indecent material "contains sexual or excretory references that do not rise to the level of obscenity," and must not be aired in daytime hours when children could be part of the audience. But the enforcement of these rules is based upon complaints brought to the FCC by members of the public.
In the microphone mishap story, the networks and cable news channels bleeped out the Bush quote in one way or another-- either "bleep-hole" or one long "bleep." A Fox News spokesman says the network handles such vulgarity incidents on a case-by-case basis.
MSNBC.com, however, printed "ass------" in a column, and strictly online news organizations, such as Salon and Slate, printed the full Bush quote. Salon doesn't have the "family newspaper" or FCC concerns shadowing its decisions to print.
Says Salon's Scott Rosenberg, vice president of site development and managing editor: "The Web is not a 'protected' medium; it reflects the vernacular of the general population.... Not publishing it would simply seem out of touch with the world."
Salon is "aimed at adult readers," he points out. But the site's policy is similar to old-media guidelines. "Our current policy is that where possible we try to avoid 'gratuitous' use of profanity, and as a rule we try to avoid using it on our homepage. But if it's relevant to a story we publish it," Rosenberg says.
The Post's Coll isn't as concerned about four-letter words as he is with "borderline vulgarity." "I feel that the paper is full of...borderline vulgarity that isn't carefully enough examined for its essentiality," he says. It's "used too often gratuitously for effect...rather than for meaning."
The word "sucks" is the best example, and it's a word many of the editors interviewed for this story discussed as problematic. When most people say, "That sucks," they only mean that something "stinks," rather than making a reference to oral sex. But still, Coll and other editors say, it's a vulgar word.
The Los Angeles Times' Carroll says the word is not allowed in the Times--though it has slipped in. It's not allowed in the New York Times, either, but it has appeared in many other publications as slang. Sutherland, Toolan and Pruden say they'll approve its use, but not lightly. "Ten years ago," says Toolan, "everyone would be loath to put that word in the paper as a negative qualifier.... I still think it's not something that should go into the paper cavalierly."
Chicago Tribune Public Editor Don Wycliff says he's had many discussions with editors about what "youthful language" the Trib will and won't allow into print. Recently, the paper quoted a 12-year-old girl as labeling the girls in her class who wore blouses with pockets "pocket nazis." The phrase, undoubtedly confusing to some, is a play off of a popular "Seinfeld" episode about the soup nazi. Wycliff got one call of complaint. "That's a powerful word," he says. "Do you begin to allow it to be...trivialized?"
Popular culture tends to trivialize many words, and most news organizations try to balance not appearing "out of it" with not contributing to the muddying of language. Carroll says of the L.A. Times' policy: "I think society is coarse enough as it is without our contributing to the problem. I don't want to make it worse. I think the vulgarity level is the highest it's been in my lifetime."
The Post ran a story September 8 on corporations registering Web site domain names such as VerizonSucks.com before dissenters purchased the names, as they've been apt to do, to criticize the company. Clearly, "sucks" was going to have to pop up in this one. "We could have used that word 25 times, we could've used it on the front page," says Coll, "or not use it at all." The Post chose to use the word a limited number of times after "a rather long-winded discussion." Coll, who doesn't want his 11-year-old son using the word and was against its proliferation in the article, was accused of being prudish by other editors.
A short time later, Coll, his 11-year-old and a couple other Post editors were driving to a Washington Redskins game, and Coll's son uttered the word "sucks." See, he doesn't mean anything by it, his editors teased.
But Coll hasn't changed his mind on limiting the use of popular slang. "I think it's easier to lose control at a newspaper in your use of vulgarity...than the reverse," he says. "I'd rather be behind the culture than ahead of it."