A shortened version of Richard

In the Washington Post blogs yesterday, three devious ways of reporting the slur dick (boldfaced below):

Mark Halperin suspended from MSNBC after calling Obama a vulgar name on ‘Morning Joe’ (Video)
By Sarah Anne Hughes

Mark Halperin, a political analyst on MSNBC, called President Obama a word that starts with “D” and is synonymous with a part of the male anatomy Thursday on “Morning Joe.” [Try to disregard the somewhat confused notion of synonymy here.]

MSNBC issued a statement suspending Halperin at 10:30 a.m.

“Mark Halperin’s comments this morning were completely inappropriate and unacceptable. We apologize to the President, The White House and all of our viewers. We strive for a high level of discourse and comments like these have no place on our air.  Therefore, Mark will be suspended indefinitely from his role as an analyst.”

The incident took place after host Joe Scarborough asked Halperin what he thought Obama’s strategy was at a press conference held Wednesday, Halperin asked, “Are we on the seven second delay?”

After getting the go ahead from Scarborough that the show had the safety precaution of filming seven seconds before it went live — enough time to bleep out any bad words — Halperin said, “I thought he was a [shortened version of Richard] yesterday.”

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer.)

Version 1 is just vague. Versions 2 and 3 clearly convey the word Halperin used, by absurd circumlocutions (which, of course, draw more attention to the word than quoting it would have). “A shortened version of Richard” deserves some sort of prize.

I’ve posted about the phallic pejorative dick on Language Log, here. It’s one of those minor-league taboo words, somewhere between serious obscentity (in fuck that shit territory) and mere slur or insult (in moron bastard territory), so the media don’t quite know how to handle it: is the expression quoted or alluded to or used? who’s the speaker/writer? what’s their intent? who’s the audience? who’s the target of the slur? what’s the relationship between these people? what’s the usual practice of the media outlet?

These are complex calculations. Neither Halperin nor MSNBC intended for the slur to go out over the airwaves — but still Halperin can be pilloried (and suspended from his job) for voicing the slur even in the expectation that it would not be aired, that it would count as “private” (though out there in flimsily disguised form). But Halperin is a news analyst — not, say, the mother of a President — so the expectation is that he will trim any talk that might count as “public”, especially in reference to someone of weight and power. (I’m reporting these expectations, not approving or recommending them. In fact, given my egalitarian inclinations, I find them repugnant.)

Here’s the rest of the story, from WashPo, with Halperin abasing himself utterly:

While the rest of the panel looked a tad shocked, Scarborough yelled, “Delay that. Delay that. What are you doing? I can’t believe — I was joking! Don’t do that. Did we delay that?”

The answer: No. They did not delay that.

It seems a new producer to the show did not know where the seven-second delay button was, and did not manage to bleep the word in time.

Halperin later offered an apology to the president and the viewers. “I want to offer a heartfelt and profound apology to the President and the viewers of Morning Joe. My remark was not funny. I deeply regret it,” he said.

After his suspension, Halperin made a second statement saying that he was in complete agreement with MSNBC. “I believe that the step they are taking in response is totally appropriate. Again, I want to offer a heartfelt and profound apology to the President, to my MSNBC colleagues, and to the viewers. My remark was unacceptable, and I deeply regret it.”

(Commenters’ opinions broke down on predictably sectarian lines.)

The WashPo has a pretty strict no-taboo policy, and it doesn’t approve of asterisking. Neither does the NYT. But on the NYT blogs, we got:

MSNBC Suspends Halperin Over Obama Slur
By Brian Stelter and Jeremy W. Peters

MSNBC suspended one of its best-known political analysts, Mark Halperin, on Thursday morning after he directed a derogatory comment at President Obama on the channel’s morning show, “Morning Joe.”

Sitting on the set of “Morning Joe,” Mr. Halperin smiled mischievously as he disparaged Mr. Obama’s behavior at a news conference a day earlier. “I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday,” Mr. Halperin said.

with the headline diverted, but the word in plain in the text.

Others have been more careful. CNN used hyphen avoidance:

New York (CNN) — The MSNBC news network suspended political analyst Mark Halperin on Thursday after the Time magazine columnist used a four-letter insult to describe President Barack Obama.

Halperin quickly apologized for the remarks, in which he told fellow panelists on the “Morning Joe” program that Obama was “kind of a d–k” for blasting Republican lawmakers during a Wednesday news conference. He had been told the program was on a seven-second delay before he delivered his assessment.

Newser, on the other hand, used asterisk avoidance in the head (but printed the word in plain in the text):

MSNBC Suspends Halperin for ‘D**k’ Remark

(NEWSER) – MSNBC has suspended Mark Halperin indefinitely after he called President Obama a “dick” on Morning Joe.

And then David Weigel on Slate — “The Halperin Backlash Backlash” — had some fun with the whole thing (while getting off a critique of Halperin’s political analysis, independent of the dick issue):

Let’s thread this needle. Had Halperin said that Republicans thought Obama had acted like an [expletive], he still would have made a big etiquette error, but yes, he would have been conveying what some Republicans thought. News flash: People who disagree with another party’s stance, and the way their partisans say it, occasionally use or think mean things about them. What surprised me about Halperin was that this was his independent political analysis — the president was being a [rude name for male sex organ] by deriding some of the GOP’s negotiating stances. Given that Obama is not the first politician to do this, it just came off as weak analysis. Is John Boehner a [thing that Harvey Keitel exposed in The Piano] when he derides the Democrats? Is Nancy Pelosi being a [first name of failed 1996 New Hampshire Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Swett] when she says Republicans are too kind to oil companies?

(Note the nice escalation in the four bracketed, and boldfaced, avoidance schemes: they get systematically longer and more ridiculous.)


5 Responses to “A shortened version of Richard”

  1. Victor Steinbok Says:

    Two quick comments on somewhat divergent subtopics. NYT does have a fairly strict policy, but it applies to print edition first and foremost and to its prime line of bloggers (Krugman, Douthat) second. After that, the control drops off. The headlines may be scrutinized because they are cross-posted in other places on NYT website, but the content passes through unfiltered. No real surprise here.

    USA Network has somewhat looser language in its 9-11 nearly daily drama/comedy lineup (sometimes hard to tell which it is) than the corresponding slots on broadcast networks. In the premier show of the latest “drama” Necessary Roughness, the main character is talking on the phone, trying to hire a private detective. She hangs up after responding, “Now I know why you’re called ‘private dicks’.”

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    A quick reminder of the Halperin pattern at TalkingPointsMemo:

    “I’m sorry. In a live radio interview this week, I used a word I shouldn’t have. The fact that I was conveying other people’s words is no excuse for my lapse in judgment. It won’t happen again.” –Mark Halperin, Feb. 13, 2008

    What was Halperin apologizing for then? Comments he made on the radio to Barbara Walters while discussing whether John Edwards would endorse Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama:

    “I can tell you, he’s really skeptical of her ability to be the kind of president he wants. But, he kinda thinks Obama is … he thinks Obama is kind of a pussy … He has real questions about Obama’s toughness, his readiness for the office.”

  3. Victor Steinbok Says:

    The HuffPost headline has “D*ck”

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now Scott Simon, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday: “using a lockerroom profanity”. Later: “a little trash talk”. And as a bonus, ending a discussion of on-air flubs: “As everyone knows, *it* happens.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: