October 31, 2007

So what is a "compelling reason" to offend an 11-year-old?

Jesse Sheidlower has been approvingly following our conversation [1, 2, 3, 4] about how newspapers censor "offensive language" and points out that NY Times editor Philip Corbett addresses this issue on the paper's web site (scroll to "why so squeamish?").

I guess we do want to have it both ways. We want to report on issues that are important and interesting to our varied and sophisticated readership. But we don't want to offend any of those readers gratuitously, and we don't want the tone of our writing to echo everything you might hear in a locker room, a bar fight or, for that matter, on late-night TV. My mother reads The Times, as does my 11-year-old son. Of course, we can't and don't edit the paper specifically to shield the most sensitive of our readers. But if we're going to offend any of them, it has to be for a compelling reason....

We also set the bar very high for racial, ethnic and sexual slurs. Reporters often argue for quoting such language, contending that the verbatim repetition is necessary to convey the tone or nature of the slur. Such arguments are usually unpersuasive. Our readers, unfortunately, know very well what constitutes a racial slur; under most circumstances, it's enough to report that one was used. Publishing such offensive language repeatedly can coarsen the tone of our writing, and perhaps further desensitize others to the use of the terms.

I didn't track down the Harry Potter reference in the article that Dr. Nussbaum referred to, so I'm not sure whether we could have been more direct without being gratuitously offensive. (I did read all the books, so I know it wasn't anything very explicit, in any case!) In general, though, the same principles would apply to double-entendres and other sexual references. We don't shy away from reporting what our readers want or need to know, but we try to do so in language that maintains the sophisticated and civil tone of The Times.

In the sophisticated and civil tone of Radosh.net: what a crock of shit.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


What makes it even worse is that this statement in favor of printing outright falsehoods is shoehorned in between two items about the serial comma and the capitalization of acronyms. Is there a reason Philip B. Corbett, language guru, and not Clark Hoyt, the public editor whose job it is to deal with such thorny issues, is fielding this question?

By the way, does anyone remember when O.J. Simpson was arrested, he wrote some messages to his friend Al Cowling or something like that -- could it have been a suicide note? The grammar and spelling were downright atrocious. And if you read news accounts the next day about what he had written, quoting at length what he had written, the errors had magically disappeared. I think editors were worried about showing how illiterate a famous black athlete really was, something along those lines. I always thought that was an interesting case where this sort of fudging on the truth sort of crept across an even more unacceptable line. Who's to say that if O.J.'s illiteracy had been a big topic of discussion for a week early on in the case, he wouldn't have been found guilty?

Who's to say that if O.J.'s illiteracy had been a big topic of discussion for a week early on in the case, he wouldn't have been found guilty?

Of course that would be equally true if OJ actually had been innocent.

I don't see what that has to do with anything. If I posit that an orchestrated fudge of some negative information about a famous murder suspect might indirectly have led to an unjust acquittal -- clearly, a stretch -- it does not seem to me a good counterargument to say that rendering the language of the letter accurately would lead to a risk of an unjust conviction. If I understand you correctly.

Is the argument that the press must avoid accurate but prejudicial facts in order to guard against a false conviction? To the point of slyly printing falsehoods? I don't know if I have run into that argument often, it's a case for cabal writ small.

I guess you're saying that the Times is never going to print this article then. It's titled "I'm going to tell my son the worst swearword in the world".

I'm not arguing in defense of Times policy, Martin. In general I think the American public has claimed a non-existent right to never be offended. And I think newspapers, particularly the New York Times, should print the unfiltered truth if only so that historians of the post-apocalypse, armed with only scraps of newsprint, won't wonder which of many n-words tore apart our civilization.

I just don't find it convincing that the New York Times should take a particular editorial stance so that poor spellers might be more easily convicted of murder. I assume you would find it a travesty if a jury were influenced in the trial of an innocent man by a fact as irrelevant as whether or not the suspect used proper grammar in emails.

Nespapers should print the truth for the sake of printing the truth. Not in order to achieve a particular result.

I remember that about the "suicide note" - Please remember the Real OJ, and all that. The atmosphere at the time was that it was such a lock that Simpson was going to prison that it was like, "let's not kick him when he's down."

Anyway, to return to the topic at hand, I only came across this one yesterday and thought it was too late to add to the other thread, but now that you've reopened this, get ready to gag...

"Hank is given to brutal honesty, who doesn't really suffer fools and [barnyard expletive deleted that flies fine on American cable and numerous European networks, which love Californication, but not in family newspapers] gladly. Hank is happy to attack [that word again] just about every time he sees it," Duchovny said.

Boy, now that's serving the reader, ain't it?

Nespapers should print the truth

NESPAPERS? You should fry, buddy.

Ha. I meant "newspapers" not "nespapers." Hopefully the Times will correct that when they reprint this discussion before the trial.

Dammit, Vance!

There's a societal benefit to keeping bad words shrouded in mystery in the media. It helps keep them crisp, fresh, and powerful. Really. In the UK, where there's less censorship of swear words, calling someone a 'twat' is about as mild as 'nerd' is in the U.S. 'Cunt' is practically polite dinner conversation there. The internet has begun and will continue to erode the strength of the curse word, but I appreciate the old media for trying in vain to maintain our societal need for unmentionables.

My case doesn't depend on O.J.'s false acquittal, though. Surely that's clear? O.J. wrote that letter in June of 2004 and the reporting happened soon after that. O.J. was acquitted in October of 2005. Do you suppose that I got irritated about newsweeklies changing O.J.'s orthography in late 2005? Of course not; my feeling that they should not do that in no way depended on any outcome.

There's also the inherent unknowability of something like O.J.'s guilt. We can only have opinions of varying accuracy, scrupulousness, etc. If some party believes that O.J. is innocent, that belief is not a good basis for arguing that O.J.'s spelling should be changed.

I will admit that I might not treat the consequences of these things as blithely as you do. If there are reasonable exceptions to the policy that one should always print the unvarnished truth, as in matters of national security -- surely newspapers should not have been free to print Valerie Plame's true work status -- those exceptions are moral or political ones, predicated in part on likely outcomes? It's no contradiction to see some practice as morally bad and also point to outcomes as a proof of this.

If printing falsehoods never led to bad results, the arguments against doing it would be far weaker.

The burden of proof on any party seeking to falsify facts is much higher than it would be on a party seeking to print the truth, for precisely the reasoning you used (the historian of the apocalypse needs a clear record). If someone wants to falsify things, that person has to show that outcomes on top of some morally pure justification. All I was saying is that you could argue the O.J. case fails on the level of outcomes. Whether not changing anything could be interpreted as "leading" to a bad result is, by comparison, irrelevant.

By the way, I used to work for Brill's Content. There was an incident when the magazine did the same thing as the Times, essentially "bleeped" some word. Steven Brill was asked about it, and his answer was much like Mr. Corbett's statement about his mother; I think it was, "My kids read the magazine, too." Obviously the status of Brill's or Corbett's relatives is not germane to the subject of what Brill's Content or the Times should print. Beware of censors appealing to family members.

You can't offend an 11-year-old, you can only mollycoddle them or smack them for sass.

By the way, I used to work for Brill's Content.

Well that explains the long, impenetrable analysis of media coverage of a court case everyone else stopped caring about 10 years ago.

Kidding! Feel free to call me a twat. (But not a cunt. My mother reads this).

I assume you would find it a travesty if a jury were influenced in the trial of an innocent man by a fact as irrelevant as whether or not the suspect used proper grammar in emails.

Are you advocating softness towards grammar crime? If the actions of Grammar Cop have taught us anything, it's that coddling these grammar scofflaws with weak penalties just encourages them to break the rules of grammar even more often.

Are you advocating softness towards grammar crime?

I believe Kevin only said that it made sense, he didn't say that he was for it. Or against it. Kevin isn't going to play your gotcha game, Jesse. Why have you abandoned the politics of hope?

Sigh. I can't even remember what we were arguing about.

Speaking of jobs we used to have, I worked for a few years in sports media relations, and newspaper reporters and editors clean up grammar and language inside the quote marks every day, partially because reporter/athlete is a symbiotic relationship and it does a beat writer no good to embarrass the athletes unnecessarily. Also a reporter might talk to an athlete for five minutes and use only a six or seven word quote, which makes him vulnerable to accusations of taking the player out of context just to make him look bad. And the paper is sometimes vulnerable to accusations of racism for the same reasons.

Someone who has more experience working on the other side of a daily could answer this better than me (and obviously a written note by a murder suspect is very different from a locker room quote) but my guess is that for some editors the first instinct is to clean up the language and grammar a bit unless the errors are specifically relevant to the story. In other words they might look for a justification NOT to change it rather than the other way around. It's a practical issue in many cases and not only because they don't want to offend readers.

Yes, this happens all the time, though there are limits. "Ums" and "Ahs" are the first thing to go, and I don't think anyone misses them. It's not necessarily unfair, because grammatical errors look worse in print than they sound when spoken, so rendering them accurately makes it sound like the person said something stupider than they actually did, if that makes sense.

Indeed, Spy used to do a great job of making people look foolish merely by quoting them fully and accurately in a way that readers weren't used to seeing.

(Also, Spy editor Joanne Gruber once sent out a memo ordering people to stop beginning sentences with "Indeed,".)

From Sunday's Arts & Leisure section, a story about the music of "Family Guy":

"For the premiere of the series’s second season Mr. Jones composed an elaborate parody of “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” from the musical “Annie” for a scene in which the protagonist Peter Griffin learns that he’s inherited a mansion from a dead relative. The song (whose vaguely obscene title cannot be printed here) was nominated for an Emmy in 2000."

The Boston Herald used to run a column called "The World According to Roger" which printed verbatim quotes from Roger Clemens with all of the ums and ahs left in to make him look stupid.

They did this in response to his claim that the Herald misquoted him in order to make him look stupid.

Grammar Cop is awesome.

I work for a magazine and I wonder about changing people's stupid grammar - I mean if we correct it, are we still quoting them?

Sometimes even our writers don't have the greatest spelling & grammar.

also, what the hell was the word David Duchovny used - a BARNYARD expletive???

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