When Joe Biden famously muttered an f-bomb-modified plaudit for the Affordable Care Act, many news outlets left his exact phrasing to readers’ imaginations. The New York Times reported his saying, “Mr. President, this is a big [expletive] deal.” The Atlantic referred to Biden’s “accidentally audible profanity” and mentioned T-shirts sporting the slogan, “Health Reform Is a BFD.” But the Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and New York Magazine reported the gaffe exactly as uttered.
Where do we stand, these days, on obscenity in the news? The New Yorker’s famed prudishness began to topple under the esteemed editorship of William Shawn, according to the longtime staff writer Calvin Trillin, who needed to quote a Nebraska farmer’s anti-Semitic epithet in full to get the effect he needed. Though the reins quickly loosened under the editors Tina Brown and David Remnick, Trillin’s quandary remains one that most obscenity-challenged media wrestle with. That is, you can expect your journalists not to lace their reports with vulgarities; you can reject fiction or poetry whose authors insist on using words you’re uncomfortable with printing. But when the use of the obscenity is itself the news, the standards people at mainstream news outlets can get their panties in a twist.
Tom Kent, standards editor at the Associated Press, recently reaffirmed, “We use vulgar and obscene quotations only when we feel they’re essential to telling a story.” Such a simple and conservative guideline will presumably save proofreaders from the “disorienting” experience of the New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, who reported that “it no longer occurs to me to query the use of four-letter words, even when they are used gratuitously,” but who recommends a “detox facility” for language checkers bombarded by the salty stuff.
But in a political season that promises to get lower and dirtier as the year wears on, the question of what to include or leave out — and how to leave it out — is bound to get vexing.
First, there’s the question of editing vulgarities at all. The Awl’s list of words creeping into The New Yorker’s lexicon (I’m leaning on The New Yorker here only because its standards have shifted so clearly over time) includes many that people like me might see as explicit but hardly obscene. Anal, fart, penis, testicle, vagina … let’s see if my editor needs to censor any of these. Meanwhile, it’s clear that many, if not most, online news sources eschew the bleeping of so-called four-letter words for any reason other than the sort of targeted offensiveness that’s represented by the so-called “c” word for female genitalia.
Second, there’s the question of what to do with the deleted material. The New York Times prefers not to signal the word with hyphens or stars (f—k, s**t), but rather to indicate that the party in question used a profanity. For instance, when the editor of The New Republic announced that he was “ready to break [insert four-letter word for poop here],” the Times noted that he would “break stuff — though he used a profanity,” whereas The Boston Globe reported that he spoke of “breaking [expletive]” and The Washington Post reported the same phrase as “breaking s—.” The beleaguered Mary Norris even reports on the difficulty of styling the euphemism: “Shall it be ‘f’-word, f word, f-word, ‘F’ word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them.” When it came to writing about a breakout Broadway play a few years back, the Times took the rather embarrassing tack of listing it as “The ________ With the Hat.”
Third, there’s the question of distinguishing one voice from another. A certain real-estate mogul running for president is prone to habits of language markedly different from the habits of a certain former secretary of state. When we hear the candidates on television, the sudden, high-pitched interruption of the bleep generally manages to preserve the speaker’s idiom. But noting politely that a candidate used a profanity, or replacing it with a more acceptable word, can tend to flatten vocabulary in ways that may not serve the purpose of journalism.
Change is afoot, just as surely as it was when profanities like damn, hell, or Christ could not be reprinted when used to blow off steam; or when jackass and scumbag were considered too vulgar to print. But if the juiciest of our obscenities are to retain any of their zest, news organizations are probably obliged to help us hold them in reserve. In a creative-writing class several years ago, one of my students wrote a sestina, a poem that calls for the same six words to alternately repeat themselves as the final words of the poem’s lines. One of her six words was — you guessed it — the same as Joe Biden’s. I watched as she read the poem aloud, and the whole class sat stiff, waiting for the word to punch its way into the poem again. We agreed, after some discussion, that she was sacrificing her poem to the shock of a single Anglo-Saxon term. We were, like Mary Norris, debilitated, suffering from a sort of profanity overdose that I would like — if only the standards editor would let me — to call f***tigue.
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