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Opening Arguments

A four-letter word that rhymes with duck

Whatever else you can say about newspapers, we're sort of the last bastion of clean and polite language. Any of you who still read newspapers appreciate that, or would you rather we loosenedup a bit? A case can certainly be made for relaxing our rules against profanity:

LAST month, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made some impolitic comments about the European Union during a phone call with the ambassador to Ukraine. The phone call was leaked, leading to an embarrassing diplomatic incident that was covered in multiple articles in the media. But what, exactly, did Ms. Nuland say?

Reuters and The Guardian printed her most notable comment in full. Most major news organizations, including The Washington Post, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and The Associated Press, reported the actual phrase Ms. Nuland used, but replaced some letters of the particularly offending word (which began with the letter F) with dashes or asterisks. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ms. Nuland used “a blunt expletive when expressing frustration.” And this newspaper stated that she had “profanely dismissed European efforts in Ukraine as weak and inadequate.”

Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples.

Taste is a legitimate concern. But this isn’t a matter of sprinkling salty words around to spice up the content. These circumlocutions actually deprive readers of the very thing these institutions so grandly promise: news and information. At a time when readers can simply go online to find the details from more nimble upstarts willing to be frank, the mainstream media need to accurately report language that is central to their stories.

It's certainly true that our "comfort level with offensive language and content" has drastically shifted. You can hear things in primetime TV that would have been considered offensive in a locker room when I was growing up. And newspapers represent the last institution making a futile effort to hold the line. Most of the time, I'm OK with that. There should be one place where people can escape the vulgarity of our ever-coarsening public life.

But we go too far when our delicate sensibilities make it harder for our readers to understand what's going on. And when it involves a public figure, letting it all hang out is almost a requirement. When President Jimmy Carter says he's going to whip Teddy Kennedy's ass, whad kind of journalistic doofus makes it "a--"? The doofuses at the newspaper I worked for at the time, that's who. When a sitting president inspires late-night-comic jokes about oral sex, the rules have sort of shifted.

The Associated Press, whose style rules we generally follow, says obscenities can be printed if there is a “compelling reason” to do so and if they are a part of direct quotations. "Compelling reason," it occurs to me, is the same kind of  justification the Supreme Court says government must have to interfere with your religion. Pretty good standard.