Media’s Mixed “Nuts” (a.ka. “A Base Phrase”-Gate)

This marks the third time* this campaign season the press has had to tackle the question of How To Report A Reference To Certain Manparts. Back in April, the head of the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union described Hillary Clinton as a person with “testicular fortitude.” In early May, James Carville said if Clinton “gave [Obama] one of her cojones, they’d both have two.”

And now, Jesse Jackson’s got -Gate (and thus more media attention than he’s had in a very long time). How did reporters handle Jackson’s ballsy reference?

The LA Times presents readers with a fuller description of Jackson’s “coarse language” than many news organizations:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson apologized Wednesday for making a crude comment about Barack Obama that exposed the veteran civil rights leader’s unhappiness with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee…

“Barack, he’s talking down to black people,” the civil rights leader whispered to another guest [on a Fox News show], healthcare executive Reid Tuckson. Jackson was unaware that his microphone was on.

“I want to cut his nuts off,” Jackson said, making a jabbing gesture with his hand.

The Chicago Tribune offers a similar level of detail:

In a moment that framed the generational divide in parts of the African-American community over Sen. Barack Obama’s historic presidential bid, Jesse Jackson moved quickly Wednesday to apologize for disparaging remarks he made about his fellow Chicago Democrat.

Not realizing a camera and microphone were live, Jackson whispered in a television studio on Sunday that Obama had been “talking down to black people” in his calls for more parental responsibility among blacks and an expansion of faith-based charities.

“I want to cut his nuts out,” Jackson added, gesturing as if grabbing part of the male anatomy and then pulling.

The less-forthcoming Chicago Sun-Times provides more coverage for its coverage:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was caught on videotape saying he wanted to “cut” presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “n- - - off,” for “talking down to black people.”

“A crude comment” is how the Associated Press covers it (up), also reporting somewhat confusingly: “Unaware that his microphone was on during a break for a Fox News program last Sunday, Jackson used a slang reference to wanting to cut off Obama’s testicles.” (Slang for testicles? Slang for “wanting to cut off…testicles?”)

Vaguer still is the New York Times, which describes Jacksons words as including “a vulgar reference” and “critical and crude comments.”

At the Washington Post, it is described as “crude language” and, ahem, “a base phrase to say what he wanted to do to the senator from Illinois” (along with the standard consideration in political reporting of Will “Nuts”-Gate Help or Hurt Obama’s White House Quest or, per the Post, “It is not clear whether the flare-up will hurt or help Obama”).

Leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, in this case, seems a questionable journalistic (and business) decision, leading to confusing copy (not to mention the likelihood that some readers will imagine something even more offensive than the reality of what happened). And what with the Internets and all, the Times’ and Post’s readers are going to be “exposed” to the raw words — likely go in search of them… at another news outlet.

*UPDATE: A quick Nexis search shows that the New York Times published the phrase “testicular fortitude” in a May 5th news story (so “testicles” is ok with the Times — at least in adjective form— but apparently not a slang word for testicles. Or maybe the distinction was that, in the first instance, the raw reference was used as praise and, in this week’s instance, as a threat or at least in a threatening-sounding manner…hmm.)

UPDATE II: It is, perhaps, easier to handle something like this in a visual medium. ON MSNBC and Fox News this morning, anchors were able to both avoid uttering forbidden language and report Jackson’s precise words (or, at least, the one) by holding up today’s New York Post (headline: “Nuts!”).

CNN stuck with descriptions like “some insulting things” and, as John Roberts put it prior to interviewing Jackson, “your statement that you wanted to cut off a certain part of Senator Obama’s anatomy.” (At one point, CNN’s Joe Johns seemed to blame Obama, calling him some kind of crude comment-magnet: “It was another messy moment for Barack Obama who [cue Rev. Wright clip] just seems to attract regrettable off-the-cuff remarks by high-profile people who are quickly forced to go out and take it back.”)

UPDATE III: If you’re a New York Sun reader (hat tip, CJR reader) you are also hopefully an M.D., as the Sun provides the following description of the content of Jackson’s “disparaging remarks:”

Jackson used a crude reference that suggested he would like to perform an orchiectomy on Mr. Obama.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.