September 19, 2007

NY Times editors are a bunch of goddamn James Blunts

The New York Times' inane policy against printing "profanity" in quotations leads the paper to some of its most strenuous contortions yet in yesterday's article on censorship at the Emmys.

Ms. Field used an expletive in saying that if mothers ruled the world, there would be no wars. She won the Emmy for her performance as Nora Walker, a liberal matriarch whose son is headed to Iraq for combat duty, on the ABC drama “Brothers & Sisters.”

Backstage after her acceptance, Ms. Field said she “would have liked to say more four-letter words up there.”

But she added that she “probably shouldn’t have said” the word that was censored. “If they bleep it, oh well, I’ll just say it somewhere else,” she said.

As you probably know, the "expletive" Field said was "goddamn." As a political statement, there is a substantive difference between saying "there would be no more fucking wars" and "no more goddamn wars," and in leaving open the possibility that Field said the former rather than the latter, the Times actively misleads readers by attempting to protect their sensibilities. I made the same case for accurate quotation when the word in question is "shit" or "fuck," but to censor "goddamn" is simply bizarre. Afer all, the Times may only have broken the shit barrier during Watergate, and rarely ever since, but according to its searchable archive, it has printed "goddamn" (or "God damn") 847 times in its history — as far back as 1857* and as recently as three and a half weeks ago. William Safire has written no fewer than three On Language columns about the phrase.

The Times notes that Fox censored Field despite the FCC ruling that "fleeting expletives" are permissable because executives felt they had a "responsibility to keep objectionable language off broadcast television." Its one thing for Fox to set decency standards for its own broadcasts (and yes, I'm intentionally avoiding the issue of whether Field wasn't really silenced for her politics) but why should it get to set them for the Times too?

After all that, I'd understand if the Times didn't want to reprint every word of Ray Romano's censored joke ( "Kelsey Grammer is fucking my wife. Shame on you, we have TV children!") but surely it could have come up with a less tortured paraphrase.

Mr. Romano was censored when he made a joke about his former television wife — Patricia Heaton, his co-star on “Everybody Loves Raymond” — and her new character’s love affair with Kelsey Grammer’s character on “Back to You,” a Fox series that is to have its premiere this week. In doing so, Mr. Romano ignored Fox’s plea to television critics not to reveal the characters’ back story before the series’s broadcast.

Why bother to give so much detail if you're not going to give readers at least a shot at figuring out what was actually said?

There are instances when printing the actual taboo word may not be necessary. Today's Times article on James Blunt accomplishes all it needs to when it says the singer's name "entered the lexicon of Cockney rhyming slang as a particularly crude insult," but in the Emmy article its attempt to drop some clues about what Katherine Heigl said only makes matters worse.

Perhaps the most surprising bit of censorship came as Ms. Heigl mouthed a curse word normally associated with frustration or disgust when she was announced as the winner of an Emmy for her role on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” The word was not picked up by any microphones, but Fox nevertheless cut away so that viewers could not read Ms. Heigl’s lips and be offended.

Wait... Did Heigl really say "fuck me gently with a chainsaw"?

[Source: Vulture.]

*Times headlines have improved since 1857. There's probably a snappier way to say "HIGHLY IMPORTANT FROM NICARAGUA; Further Accounts of the Evacuation of the San Juan. GEN, HORNSBY'S LAST DISPATCH TO GEN. WALKER THE PARTITION OF NICARAGUA SETTLED. Removal of Lockridge's Force from Greytown in British Frigates. San Juan del Sur Garrisoned by the Allies. VERY LATE NEWS FROM RIVAS. Walker Greatly Reduced. The Reports of Former Victories Denied."

But the articles themselves may have been better back then. I defy you to find a paragraph in today's paper as exciting as this one**:

The Rangers were always the dirty tools of a dirty man to discharge the most dirty work. If a hacienda was to be robbed, they were dispatched to perform the work. If a young boy was to be torn from the arms of his agonized mother and forced into the ranks, they did it. If a poor Indian woman had to be plundered of her little store of sugar which she had carefully manufactured to sustain herself and family, THEY did it. If oxen, or money, or corn, or rice were required, they were dispatched, and nothing more was required than for the owner of the hacienda to see the ugly face of their commander, and to hear his hoarse, "God damn you, I want money," backed as the expression was by a cocked pistol, to give him all he asked.

**Reading this again, I realize that the Times is actually quoting a Mexican paper, Telegrapho Sententrional, but I already typed it in and it's such a great bit of old-fashioned newspaper writing, so I'm gonna leave it.

Posted by Daniel Radosh

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