Punk-ass fag in the news

From Ben Zimmer, a link to this St. Louis Post-Dispatch column (“Why we printed some normally unprintable language” by Ronald Wade, posted March 6), in which the paper defends its decision to print punk-ass fag in a news story:

Post-Dispatch style and policy guidelines prohibit the printing of profanities and offensive language in news stories. However, we made an exception today online and in Sunday’s paper.

A passage in the front-page story about the sentencing of convicted cop killer Todd Shepard describes how he called St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch vulgar names throughout the trial. The paragraph closes with the final exchange between the two as Shepard is led from court after the jury recommended a life sentence without parole.

“Punk-ass fag,” Shepard called McCulloch, who responded “Get out.”

We made the exception because of the belief that the information conveyed to readers outweighed the inherent offensiveness of the actual language. Such language normally would not be allowed in a story. But after consultation with the reporter and the assigning editor, I approved use of the phrase because it was reflective of the situation in the courtroom.

The language used by Shepard against the prosecutor throughout the trial was constant and vile. Simply saying that “Shepard taunted McCulloch with vulgar names in the courtroom throughout the trial” [quotation from the story] didn’t capture the nature of his outbursts, so we used the final exchange to provide a sense of the atmosphere and Shepard’s demeanor during the trial.

The paper didn’t print any other of Shepard’s vile taunts — the story simply avoided them, and ostentatiously avoided printing shit (or maybe fuck):

“These honkies know the death penalty don’t mean (expletive) to me,” he wrote. “I’ll spit in the judge’s face and dare him to kill me.” [Shephard says he is of mixed race but considers himself black; the victim, Sgt. Michael King, was white]

but settled on this one as summing up the whole set. Some publications, like the New York Times, avoid even such character-revealing quotes, while others, like the New Yorker and the Guardian, print them freely for this purpose. Finding a middle ground isn’t easy.

Punk-ass fag, taken more or less literally, refers to a gay man available for fucking, available as another man’s bitch; punk-ass bitch is used similarly. But both expressions can be used as all-purpose insults, conveying worthlessness. Which is probably what Shepard had in mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: