Profanity in the NYT

Yesterday’s NYT had an op-ed piece by Jesse Sheidlower on “The Case for Profanity in Print”, taking up a topic that I’ve posted about frequently (often mockingly, often with input from Jesse): the paper’s insistence (almost without exception) on alluding to taboo vocabulary without quoting it, even when it’s the point of the story. (It’s a family paper, they say, and the children must be protected. If so, then they should simply avoid allusions to the language at all, rather than contort themselves to communicate what was said without actually using the words. And, by the way, children are not innocents about such things.)

The beginning of the piece:

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. [An especially vexing point.]

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.

Jesse goes on from there.

Some outlets — the Guardian, the Economist, the New Yorker — quote material directly, when the editors think it’s relevant to the story. I think that’s the right solution (and the protection of children is a red herring here: how many children are readers of these publications?).

Many follow-ups to Jesse’s piece.

2 Responses to “Profanity in the NYT”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    It’s perhaps unusual that Sheidlower would write ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory’ when the original order in the Monty Python sketch that I think he’s alluding to is ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’, eg see Wikipedia at ‘Nudge Nudge’.

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