homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

The NY Times and the truth of profanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2016

When the story about Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women broke, the NY Times took the unusual step of publishing exactly what the presidential candidate said.

In the three-minute recording, which was obtained by The Washington Post, Mr. Trump recounts to the television personality Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” how he once pursued a married woman and “moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” expressing regret that they did not have sex. But he brags of a special status with women: Because he was “a star,” he says, he could “grab them by the pussy” whenever he wanted.

“You can do anything,” Mr. Trump says.

He also said he was compulsively drawn to kissing beautiful women “like a magnet” — “I don’t even wait” — and talked about plotting to seduce the married woman by taking her furniture shopping. Mr. Trump, who was 59 at the time he made the remarks, went on to disparage the woman, whom he did not name, saying, “I did try and fuck her. She was married,” and saying, “She’s now got the big phony tits and everything.”

It was unusual because of the Times’ policy of not printing profanity, even if the profane words themselves are newsworthy. In this case, the editors felt they had no choice but to print the actual words spoken by Trump.

In piece published earlier the same day the Trump story broke, Blake Eskin, who has been tracking the Times’ non-use of profanity at Fit to Print, highlights the racial and classist implications of the policy.

As I’ve noticed over the years while documenting how the Times writes around profanity, a lot of the expletives the Times avoids come up around race: in stories about hip-hop, professional sports, and police shootings. (I’m getting all the data into a spreadsheet so I can back up this assertion.)

The Times seems compelled both to tell readers that people curse in these contexts and to frown upon it.

It’s as if profanity is like a sack dance or a bat flip, a classless flourish that the archetypal Times reader, who is presumably white, can take vicarious pleasure in without having to perform it himself.

You cannot tell authentic stories about people who are systematically discriminated against in our society without using their actual words and the actual words spoken against them related to that discrimination. Full stop.

Update: Eskin wrote a follow-up about his data analysis of the NY Times profanity avoidance for Quartz.

The “other” category includes faux-folksy formulations such as “a word more pungent than ‘slop,’” and “a stronger version of the phrase ‘gol darn,’” as well as the straightforward, “He swore.” When I began the Fit to Print project, I could enjoy the cleverness of some of these contortions. But after reading through hundreds of examples over several years, expletive avoidance no longer strikes me as an interesting puzzle for a writer to solve. The policy just seems prissy, arbitrary, and delusional.

The more I think about the Times’ policy, the more absurd it becomes. There seems to be a relatively simple solution: if the profanity does work in the service of journalism — particularly if the entire article is about the profanity in question — print it. It is doesn’t, don’t. I mean, are Times editors afraid their reporters will start handing in articles with ledes like “Well, this fucking election is finally winding down, thank Christ.”?