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November 12, 2009

The New York Times became a fan of pointless self-censorship

Daniel Radosh

By now we're all too aware of newspapers hiding supposedly obscene words behind phrases like "barnyard epithet" and "salty language." But what to make of this New York Times story about a teenager who had the burglary charges against him dropped after proving that he'd been updating his Facebook status at the time?

The message on Rodney Bradford's Facebook page, posted at 11:49 a.m. on Oct. 17, asked where his pancakes were... At the time, the sentence, written in street slang, was just another navel-gazing, cryptic Facebook status update -- meaningless to anyone besides Mr. Bradford.

Unprintable street slang for "Where are my pancakes?" The original version of the story, on a Times blog, was even more cryptic.

At the time, the sentence, written in indecipherable street slang, was just another navel-gazing, cryptic Facebook status update -- words that were gobbledygook to anyone besides Mr. Bradford.

Fortunately, the Times web site posted a screengrab, allowing anyone to see that the actual post status update was "ON THE PHONE WITH THIS FAT CHICK......WHERER MY I HOP."

Alternate 1985 has some thoughts.

I'm not saying this is the most crystal-clear, easily understood expression imaginable, but "indecipherable street slang"? IHOP is a major chain with restaurants in all 50 states. Gimme a fuckin' break.

It's also funny--slash, troubling--that the Times translates "WHERER MY I HOP" as "Where's my pancakes" (as opposed to, say, "Where are my pancakes").The most innocent explanation is that the status update really was just completely incomprehensible to these people, and they couldn't even begin to understand that WHERER = WHERE'RE = WHERE ARE, and they either had to turn the R into an S in order to wrap their minds around it.


Couldn't he have gotten a friend or family member to update his status from their home computer using his facebook? It's not like you need a retina scan to log in...

Oh, they address that in the article. But still, really? That got him acquitted?

I guess the censorship because so many Times editors are fat chicks and/or are married to one.

In the Times' defense, I think it was probably better to go with a cutesy lede than one that introduced the accused as an misogynist, anti-fattie, ALL-CAPS typing jagoff. The actual contents of the status update were fairly incidental to the story -- it was the IP address that cleared him, not the fat chick -- and so why taint the dude on the basis of an out-of-context status update? ("Context" in this case being actually knowing him; he may be a total dick in real life, but then, so are most people so big deal.)

As for switching "pancakes" to "IHOP," that's just solid joke-improvement -- funniness being inversely related to confusingness, on the scale of which "Where are my IHOP?" ranks pretty high. I'm willing to trade a modicum of truth for joke-improvement in pretty much all situations, even the New York Times crime beat.

@Dean. Granted it wasn't important to the story. And that outing him as a fattie hater might be prejudicial.

But are you really saying that "pancakes" is funnier than "IHOP"? I'll have to disagree there on the grounds that specificity is funnier than generality and that IHOP is inherently funny, both of which outweigh any humor value in the "k" sound.

No, I agree with you there. It cannot be disputed by any reasonable person that IHOP edges out pancakes in terms of comedic potential; but that's only if we're comparing them in a contextual vacuum. For the purposes of a status update or a newspaper lede or a newspaper lede regarding a status update, the question of "Where's my pancakes?" is funnier than "Where are my IHOP?" because, although it would be unusual to misplace pancakes, the situation is conceivable and highly relatable; the loss of pancake-sized items is universal to the human condition.

Conversely, few of us have ever owned a popular dining franchise, and those who do rarely forget its location, making the question a bit too perplexing for comedy except in the context of certain subsets of the French theatre. I should note, however, that "Where are my IHOP?" could conceivably be funnier to newspaper readers in Ireland, where the occasional loss of something IHOP-sized is universal to the human condition.


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