A column in the Sunday New York Times from the newspaper's public editor Clark Hoyt is essential reading for anyone concerned with modern journalistic practices of taboo avoidance. Running under the headline "When to Quote Those Potty Mouths," the piece takes its cue from the Rev. Jesse Jackson's notorious comments about Sen. Barack Obama, recently caught on tape by Fox News. (See Mark Liberman's post "Political castration" for more on the incident.) The Times coverage didn't reveal what Jackson said exactly (and the Washington Post got away with saying that Jackson "wanted to castrate" Obama), but Hoyt pulls no punches:
For those curious about Jackson’s exact words “I want to cut his nuts off” The Post’s Web site provided a video link. The Times did not. (The Times agreed to an exception to its decision for this column because what he said is central to this discussion.)
The exception made by the Times editors was evidently good for one obscenity only, since Hoyt spends the rest of the column dancing around what the paper has and has not printed. Below I've provided a guide to the linguistic taboos Hoyt was forced to avoid, with relevant Language Log links.
After some thoughts on the late George Carlin, whose "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine was discussed in the Times though the words themselves were naturally omitted, Hoyt launches into an examination of the newspaper's track record on printing obscenities. "The Times does not always seem consistent in its decisions," Hoyt writes, and then enumerates the inconsistencies:
It would not print "nuts" last week but put "cojones" in a headline 10 years ago.
On November 1, 1998 (back in the pre-Language Log era), the Times Sunday Magazine published an article about a study determining that "trial lawyers have higher testosterone levels than their counterparts who toil outside the courtroom." The headline was "Juris Cojones."
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.
The name of the band in question is "Fucked Up," which the Times rendered as eight asterisks. See: "Music Review: ********" (LL, Nov. 13, 2007).
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.
Cheney rather famously told Leahy, "Go fuck yourself" (sometimes stated more tersely as "Fuck yourself"). This was mentioned in a U.S. Court of Appeals decision about the FCC's rules on obscenity. In reporting on the decision, the Times referred to Cheney's exclamation as "an angry obscene version of 'get lost.'" See: "Taking no shit from judges" (LL, June 5, 2007).
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.
Bush told Blair, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." See: "Presidential expletive watch" (LL, July 17, 2006) and "Taking shit from the President" (LL, July 19, 2006).
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.
A transcript of the call, believed to be from Republican political consultant Roger Stone, contained the line: "There is not a goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-shit son can do about it." See: "The NYT transgresses" (LL, Aug. 23, 2007).
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.
Clinton called Purdum a "scumbag." (Huffington Post has the audio.) The Times ran two articles reporting on the outburst, but they merely said that Clinton called Purdum "sleazy," "slimy," and "dishonest." Language Log missed out on the Times coverage of the Clinton-Purdum incident, though a post from April 2006 ("Heated words about 'sauna'") did link to Jesse Sheidlower's edifying discussion of scumbag on Slate, after the word slipped into the Times crossword puzzle.
We here at Language Log Plaza will remain vigilant in monitoring Times taboos, even when the paper's own public editor is obliged to follow circuitous avoidance strategies.