Ethics Corner: Truth to Be Found in Dirty Language?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 15 02:26:29 UTC 2006

Ethics Corner: Truth to Be Found in Dirty Language?

Editors face a dilemma when prominent figures utter obscenities while
speaking on the record. Too many of them choose to sweep the dirt under
the rug. What's the friggin' idea?

By Allan Wolper

NEW YORK (March 14, 2006) -- It was good old-fashioned Democratic Party
politics. Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi told The New York Times
that Attorney General Eliot Spitzer had been running for governor for "a
[expletive] year and he hasn't ----." Not that readers would know what he
was actually saying. Still, Suozzi tried to take back whatever it was he
said. But Times reporter Patrick D. Healy wouldn't let him. A quote was a
quote was a quote. The paper of record would tell it like it was. Sort of.
"People were surprised he used that kind of language," Healy laughed,
confirming my suspicion that some of the blanks were expletive-deleted
slang expressions referring to a slang term for sex. "Suozzi's folks told
me that his mom wasn't happy."

Suozzi's mom might have known what her son had said, but no other
newspapers in New York State picked up the Jan. 14 story, according to
Healy. I believe they would have if the Times had not doctored Suozzi's
colorful comments. And that deprived New York voters of learning how
Suozzi behaves when things get down and dirty. Suozzi knew he had screwed
up. So he certainly wasn't going to repeat his mistake to other
newspapers. It reminded me of my first newspaper job, when a crusty old
editor refined my copy to clean up the barely comprehensible thoughts of a
New Jersey politician. I complained that it made the politician seem
smarter than he was, that it seemed unethical. My editor called it a "gift
of grammar."  The Times gave Suozzi the same kind of gift. It wasn't
Healy's fault. He was following his newspaper's policy.

In June 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney, standing on the Senate floor
during a photo session, told United States Sen. Patrick Leahy to "fuck
yourself." Reporting on the incident, the newspaper of record said Cheney
used an "obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr. Leahy should do."
USA Today wrote Cheney told Leahy to "go (expletive) yourself."
Fortunately, The Washington Post was willing to pick up the slack. Why did
they do it? "Without the exact words, you would lose the power and the
news value of the exchange," Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor of
national news, told Washingtonian.

Newspapers know it's unethical to clean up the language of the people they
cover. But they convince themselves they're doing the right thing. They're
family newspapers. They're worried about their children seeing it. "I was
shocked to see how sensitive American ears are," said Jeffrey Dvorkin,
ombudsman for National Public Radio, who migrated here from the Canadian
Broadcasting System. Dvorkin noted that NPR also passed on Cheney's
comments. "But we were wrong. I would have used it." It doesn't matter
whether a newspaper is published in a blue or red state.  The
Anti-Profanity Language Cops are always out in force. But there are ways
to thwart them. Mike Needs, public editor for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon
Journal, managed to get the phrase "son of a bitch" into an April 2004
column after it was censored out of a "Doonesbury" cartoon in the paper.
"You are reading that word here, in this column, because presumably you
understand that it is gosh darned difficult to write about certain words
without using them," he wrote.

Needs recently told me the Beacon Journal has used some variation of the
word "bitch" 410 times since 1985. He wasn't sure about how damning that
was, since his paper also covers dog shows. But the Beacon-Journal almost
went all the way when it reported that Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic had
"used the F word" when berating a parking attendant. And Needs didn't have
to explain it. The dictionary euphemism for the F word is "friggin'" or
"frickin',"  according to several slang dictionaries. Connie Coyne, reader
advocate for The Salt Lake Tribune, said one of the paper's columnists
regularly used the word "friggin'" to dress up his copy without any
reaction from her readers. "I didn't get any complaints," Coyne chuckled,
a reference to the fact her red state was viewed as somewhere to the right
of Hawaii. "But we got some editors who didn't appreciate it, and they
made him stop."

The word "frickin'" recently made its way into the New York Times. David
Carr, the paper's columnist on newspaper issues, managed the feat when he
reprised the comments New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin made on the Oprah
Winfrey show during Hurricane Katrina. "They have people standing out
there, have been in the frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead
bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people," Carr accurately
quoted Nagin as saying.

And no one made a stink.

Allan Wolper (letters at

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