Rhymes with ‘Truck’

Profanity in the press: Why is it such a big fucking deal?

There’s nothing the media like more than a politician’s blunder, especially if a video clip means that the gaffe goes viral. And that’s particularly so when the blunder comes courtesy of Joe Biden, who puts his foot in his mouth with remarkable frequency. When Biden was caught whispering to President Obama that the recent health care bill passage was a “big fucking deal,” the blogosphere was sent into a predictable frenzy. The initial amusement, however, was followed by a period of handwringing in some publications. The Boston Globe analyzed the incident with a lengthy piece on profanity that asked, “Is public discourse getting coarser?” The Hartford Courant went a step further, describing the VP’s f-bomb as “a blunder that sullied a historic moment.”

Worse than the moralizing, however, was the evasive coverage of the incident by most news outlets. With all the asterisks, ellipses and coy allusions employed in the service of f-bomb-evasion, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether Biden had been caught with his pants down rather than his mic on. The New York Times’s political blog, The Caucus, quoted Biden in a roundabout manner:

‘“Mr. President, this is a big … deal,” he said, adding an adjective between the big and the deal that begins with “f.”’

The following day, The New York Times proper covered the incident in a similarly prissy fashion:

‘“Mr. President, this is a big [expletive] deal,” Mr. Biden whispered, inserting an adjective not used in polite conversation.’

David Herszenhorn, the Times reporter who wrote the “begins with ‘f’” Caucus post, explained that in this case quoting Biden in full did not seem necessary. “My own sense is that our readers are not so delicate that they have never heard a curse word before,” he said. “And I think there are certainly times when the gravity of the news may require that we quote people uttering expletives. I would suggest that our rules exist with an eye toward a larger goal—set by the newspaper’s patriarch, Adolph Ochs—to foster polite discourse, which seems increasingly scarce these days.”

There are, of course, economic pressures on publications like The New York Times—namely, advertisers concerned with image—that must weigh heavily on their language policy. And the desire to avoid gratuitous swearing is understandable. In op-eds, for instance, there’s no need to swear outside of a quote when any other word would suffice. There’s also no need to reprint profanity if it’s patently offensive, describing someone’s race or sexual orientation in unacceptable terms. I myself draw the line at ‘the c-word,’ a crude euphemism for a part of the female anatomy so often used when ‘idiot’ would do the trick. But surely when the word in question is part of a direct quote from a person in power, it should be included in full—not only in the interest of accuracy, but also in the interest of treating readers like savvy, 21st century adults, rather than prim Victorians reaching for the smelling salts at the sight of a four-letter word.

Continuing to censor language that, frankly, most of us hear (and use) daily seems hypocritical and oversensitive. This is especially true now that many of us read our news solely on the Internet, where one can easily surf over to a story on Biden’s f-bomb from, say, watching fetish porn. The Internet’s vastness and the freedom with which we can find any information we like makes the media’s prudish attitude toward profanity seem all the more outdated. The outlets that censor the f-word seem to be catering to the lowest common denominator: the reader so unsophisticated and unworldly, with such little sense of proportion, that a slightly crude word could prompt him to pick up the phone to complain. It is this reader, so precious and easily offended, that the press is placating by using asterisks and ellipses instead of printing a word as it was uttered.

There are, of course, many outlets that take a more transparent approach to quoting profanity. Most of these sit slightly outside the mainstream—like Gawker, the much-read media blog, which quoted Biden (and, more recently, Senator Carl Levin after his ‘shitty deal’ outburst at the Goldman Sachs hearings) in full, both in the headline and body of multiple posts. And some online versions of TV broadcasters went slightly further on the Web than they would on television. Brian Montopoli covered the Levin story for CBS News’ Political Hotsheet blog and approached the broadcaster’s head of standards, Linda Mason, about how to handle the senator’s use of profanity. The result was a happy medium. “The decision was made that we wouldn’t actually put the word ‘shitty’ in the headline but that it was OK in the text, since it was a quote,” Montopoli said.

Compare all that to the UK media—especially the left-leaning publications The Guardian, The Observer, and The Independent—which seem to have the most mature, sensible approach to the use of profanity in the press. All three national broadsheets quoted Biden in full after his outburst. As Richard Adams, the Guardian reporter who covered Biden’s gaffe, explained it: “If Joe Biden says something is a ‘big fucking deal,’ that is germane to the story.”

Indeed, “I don’t argue that we should go out of our way to offend,” said the paper’s production editor, David Marsh, who considered all the cussing (The Guardian has used “the word ‘fuck’ and its variants” 705 times in the past year) in a recent Mind Your Language post. “But I do feel strongly that we have a duty to treat our readers as adults, not children, and quote people accurately, not decide which words our readers can or cannot handle. The Biden story is a case in point. Everyone knows he said ‘big fucking deal’, so the media have achieved nothing by not reporting his words accurately apart from making themselves look out of touch with the real world.”

The New York Times’s Herszenhorn disagrees. “Of course, there is substantial value in quoting folks saying exactly what they say in the precise way that they say it,” he said. “And 99 percent of the time, we do just that.” But “in this case, the vice president of the United States cursed. BFD. Will CJR quote me on that?”

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Clare O'Connor is a student in the spring Media Criticism course at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.