Reporting the profane

Language Log and this blog have devoted a good bit of space, over the years, to the New York Time‘s struggles to maintain three principles. There’s a constant tension, not always easily resolved; see the postings listed here. Mostly, the paper dodges the issue completely; alludes to characterizations like “profanity” or “salty language”; or (most often) resorts to semi-coy indirection, of the “but not in those words” variety.

But not always.

The three principles:

(1) some words (notably, fuck and shit) should never appear in the pages of a “family newspaper” (as the Times quaintly likes to think of itself); the idea is that these words are inherently harmful, especially to the innocent and sensitive (children and well-bred women);

(2) ostentatious avoidance — via asterisking or substitution devices like “[expletive]” or “[bleep]” — are not to be used; they are coy and icky; but

(3) the paper is committed to reporting the facts accurately and as completely as possible (“all the news that’s fit to print”).

Hence, the tension.

That brings us to the actor Samuel L. Jackson, a man notable for his plain and earthy talk. In a piece by Pat Jordan (“How Samuel L. Jackson Became His Own Genre”, NYT Magazine of 4/29/12), we get one instance of allusive characterization and one of semi-coy indirection, and then a startling four “[expletive]”s, possibly a record for the Gray Lady.

Allusive characterization. Talking about the performance that made him world-famous, as Jules Winnfield in the movie Pulp Fiction:

Jackson’s roles, no matter how fleshed-out or nuanced, have been far from innocent. Still, even as Jules tossed off vulgarities and obscenities as offhandedly as he shot people, like so many benign terms of endearment, he displayed the greater part of Jackson’s success as an actor — his ability to imbue even his vilest characters, spouting the vilest words, with a touch of humor, intelligence and humanity.

Semi-coy indirection. A few pages later, talking about his Pulp Fiction co-star John Travolta, Jackson

dropped the falsetto [imitating actors being modest about their craft] and began to fulminate like Jules, in ways that can’t be reprinted here. How could anyone expect someone else to pay $12.50 to watch him on screen if he couldn’t watch himself?

[expletive]. We’re past these passages and about halfway through the article when we get to the “[expletive]”s:

[1, probably shit, maybe crap] When Jackson was making a filmed version of the play “The Sunset Limited,” with Tommy Lee Jones, the play’s author, Cormac McCarthy, complained about his line readings. Jackson said: “It sounds better my way. I’m not trying to make this [expletive] worse!”

[2, probably fucking] “They called me nigger boy and my grandmother Miss Nigger. It was always ‘Miss,’ as if a term of respect. When my grandfather took me to work with him, the whites there would rub my head, affectionately. I’d [expletive] look ’em in the eye to make them uncomfortable. But it was nothing to be angry about. Segregation was just a way of life.”

[3, probably motherfucker] After “Pulp Fiction” made him “the coolest [expletive] on the planet,” Jackson said, “it was no burden to be cool.

[4, probably fucking, but maybe asshole] I said that a friend of mine who worked for the Coen brothers told me Jackson was cool mostly to suburban white boys. Jackson shrieked: “Then why don’t those [expletive] white-boy Coen brothers give me a job?”

You see the problem: this way of talking is part of Jackson’s persona, so it’s hard to give a sense of what he’s like without the taboo vocabularyl

Of course, there are ways to avoid pointers to the vocabulary: the modifiers in [2] and [3] could simply be omitted (perhaps with diareses to indicate elision), to protect the paper’s reputation for veracity:

[2′] “I’d … look ’em in the eye”

and the nouns in [1] and [4] could be replaced by neutral substitutes (stuff, say, in [1], guy or brother, etc. in [4]), perhaps with quotation punctuation (again, to protect the paper’s reputation for veracity):

[1′] “I’m not trying to make this” stuff “worse!”

Many media sources would have no qualms about such omissions and substitutions, unmarked, in quotations, so long as the overall sense is preserved (and in fact, Mark Liberman has written often on Language Log about the enormous liberties the media take in quoting people).

To the NYT‘s credit, the article doesn’t flinch from nigger in its quotations from Jackson. Hard to see how it could, since the very point of these quotations is contention over Jackson’s use of the word in the parts he plays. You couldn’t erase the word without erasing the subject — unless, of course, you were foolish enough to put the N word in Samuel L. Jackson’s mouth. Fuck knows what Jackson would say about that.

[General proviso: I have no way of knowing which forms of expression came without much thought from Pat Jordan’s keyboard, which were chosen by Jordan in light of what the editors were likely to require, and which were imposed by one or another sort of editor. All of these things happen.]

One Response to “Reporting the profane”

  1. More reporting the profane « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Faced with the task of writing about the new tv series Veep, in which the title character (the vice-president of the United States) and a number of others break into florid swearing, the New York Times has opted for allusive characterization of this talk, without attempting to convey (however indirectly) the actual expressions used; contrast this with the paper’s recent treatment of Samuel L. Jackson (here). […]

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