The New York Times cannot decide if it is a contemporary publication, or a throwback to the Puritan/Victorian heritage that considered exposure of an ankle to be shocking. Naval-gazing is not solely the province of the blogosphere.1
The Times does not always seem consistent in its decisions. It would not print “nuts” last week but put “cojones” in a headline 10 years ago. The newspaper reviewed a rock band last fall without printing its name because it contained what is probably the most objectionable of Carlin’s seven words. When Vice President Cheney used a variant of the same word on the floor of the Senate in 2004 to tell Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont what to do to himself, The Times again passed. But two years later, it did print another of Carlin’s words when President Bush told Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, what Syria needed to tell Hezbollah to knock off. The same word appeared last year in an article about a telephoned threat to Bernard Spitzer, whose son Eliot was then governor of New York. The Times was back on the conservative side this year, ignoring a vulgarism by former President Bill Clinton in the middle of a rant about Todd Purdum, a writer for Vanity Fair.
Keller told me before the Jackson issue arose: “I think the trend here — and it’s something I share — is we don’t want to be leading the charge to a coarser public discourse. We want to err on the side of civility. If occasionally that makes us seem squeamish or square, I can live with that.”
Caine, the law professor, argued that The Times needs to loosen up and cited as one model The New Yorker, where the barriers to Carlin’s forbidden words began falling in 1985.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said, “People use these words in everyday speech. Why should we editors become so decorous and want to protect our readers from them? If a vice president uses a profanity to describe a senator, why should we sanitize his expression?”
Allan Siegal, Whitney’s predecessor as standards editor, said that Remnick was invited to speak at a retreat of Times editors some years ago and criticized “the prudery and hypocrisy of not using dirty words in the paper.” But while Remnick sees his audience and The Times’s as the same, The New Yorker is not delivered to middle- and high-school classrooms as 40,000 daily copies of The Times are.
The Times has built one of the most powerful brands in the world on the strength of writing “in a civil, measured way for people who want to read in a civil, measured way,” as Siegal put it. Although I would have quoted Jackson — and Cheney and Clinton, for that matter — I think the newspaper is wise to preserve its character and adapt slowly and carefully to the language around it. I use some of Carlin’s dirty words, but I do not want to read them in The Times unless it is essential, and I do not think I am alone.
How about my compromise: use language that is appropriate to the topic. My grandfather, Joe Murphy, has a quote about writers and salty language, which goes something like, “only a poor writer requires curse words to communicate clearly.” The culture has changed a bit since Joe Murphy was a newspaper editor though, and the self-proclaimed paper of record should accurately quote Vice Presidents,2 musicians,3 and other public figures, but reporters need not work the word “fuck” into their supporting sentences, unless absolutely necessary – like discussing George Fucking Bush and his love for torture and other war crimes.Footnotes: