The inside-outside strategy

The NYT struggled yesterday to report a famous story about the vice-presidency. In Frank Bruni’s op-ed piece, “The Hex on Paul Ryan”, he writes:

F.D.R.’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, famously characterized the job [of vice president] as not being worth “a warm bucket” of urine, which was euphemized in the retelling as “spit.”

Notice that Garner’s words are still being euphemized, but somewhat more directly. Bruni (or an editor) has taken piss from inside the quotation marks and moved it outside, where it can be euphemized as urine (using medical vocabulary instead of the vernacular). This “inside-outside strategy”, in combination with the reference to euphemism, has the virtue of making the original word choice clear (but without actually using the offending word).

The strategy is often subtler than that. As I said in talking about the paper’s treatment of a quote from actress Lupe Ontiveros — “With characteristic saltiness, Ms. Ontiveros once said, “I’ve made chicken salad” out of chicken manure.” —

Now you might think that chicken manure is the salty talk. However, note that the story quotes “I’ve made chicken salad” directly, but has chicken manure outside of quotation marks, conveying only that what’s being reported is the gist, not necessarily the exact words (an avoidance strategy the Times has used on other occasions).

And what she’d said was, in fact, chicken shit.


2 Responses to “The inside-outside strategy”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    What she said was “chickenshit”; what they wrote was chickenshit.

  2. Timesly taboo avoidance « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] reducing those writers to vague reports (like these) or paraphrasing outside of quoted material (as here). The vague-report strategy forces the reader into a guessing […]

Leave a Reply