“Pussy” on a hot Trump mic

The Old Gray Lady is a prude.

In a story about Samuel L. Jackson and the motherfucking snakes on his motherfucking plane, the New York Times mentions that he “unleashes a 13-letter epithet” without even giving the reader a first letter to go on. (Times readers, it is assumed, are prepared to solve crossword clues anywhere in the paper, even in a guide to what’s on TV.) In a story about someone being fired for swearing, the paper does not name or even hint at the swear, though it does accompany the story with a charming F-bomb illustration that I kind of want to hang in my dining room. Until last year, if Yankees or Mets fans chanted “bullshit” after a blown call, the Times would refer to this only as “a barnyard epithet.”

But this week, the New York Times published “fuck,” “bitch,” “tits,” and “pussy” without so much as a hyphen or asterisk to conceal their naughtiness.

So what the fuck is happening to the Times?

In a word: Trump.

On Friday, the Washington Post released a tape of the Republican presidential nominee speaking to TV personality Billy “apparently a Bush-Bush” Bush while miked up for an “Access Hollywood” appearance.

Highlights!

“I did try and fuck her. She was married. … I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”

“I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

Trump: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Someone else (possibly Billy Bush): “Whatever you want.”
Trump: “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

“Grab them by the pussy” is the quote that has captured Twitter’s attention — as it should, because what he’s describing is sexual assault — but there’s a lot of shit in here that papers normally wouldn’t print. This 3-minute tape is far too newsworthy to ignore, yet it features the word “bitch” plus half of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (the tape includes “shit,” though the Times didn’t run that, and I’m counting “pussy” as half a “cunt” because it’s my blog post).

When I tweeted about this issue, a few people told me that they’d been astonished to see this kind of language used without bowdlerization or censorship in the Times, which is reasonable, given the Times’ history. But in fact, all this cussin’ is exactly in line with their policy about vulgarity, according to standards editor Philip B. Corbett, who said last year:

“Under our guidelines, we try to limit use of vulgarities or other potentially offensive language to situations where the specific language is crucial to the story. Otherwise, we avoid the vulgarity — sometimes by paraphrasing, or by choosing a different quote.”

It’s very rare for the Times to deem any vulgarities “crucial” to the story, but in this case, anything Trump said in the clip seems to have been OKed to run in full, though the story (as of about 1 p.m. Saturday) appears to be writing around the fact that someone other than Trump said “shit.”

It’s clear that the paper considered not running these words even in this case: As Ben Zimmer pointed out, the story’s revision history appears to show editors adding the offending quotes as fast as they are approved by Times leadership. And Politico reports:

“It’s a rare thing for us to use this language in our stories, even in quotes, and we discussed it at length,” said Times politics editor Carolyn Ryan. “Mr. Trump is the nominee for president of one of our two major parties, and the specific language he used was newsworthy, and a major part of the story. To leave it out or simply describe it seemed awkward and less than forthright to us, especially given that we would be running a video that showed our readers exactly what was said.”

As a professional copy editor and amateur swear enthusiast, it’s my considered opinion that running the words in full is the correct approach. They are, clearly, essential to the story, and the story is essential to readers.

So what makes a good profanity policy?

  1. Be clear: What can you run? What has to be censored? How do you censor it? This is not the time to make sweeping statements like, “Vulgarities have no place in this publication,” unless you really mean you will never run or refer to a vulgarity under any circumstances. Instead, get nitty-gritty. Does your style guide have a section about “ass”? Does it distinguish between uses like “smartass,” “fancy-ass,” “ass-over-teakettle,” and “nice ass”?
  2. Have a reason: Why must it be censored, or why are you OK running it in full? Language can be big news, and editors need to know when to make an exception to the usual policy in service of a story. Don’t rely on tired excuses like “this is a family publication” — if the worst thing a child might see in the news is a cuss word, then we’ve been transported to some kind of utopia — or “some of our readers are sensitive” — is mentally playing hangman with “m———–” really less shocking than seeing it written out? What censoring words does, in real life, is give adults a moment to process that they’re about to see something vulgar. Those bleeped-out words jump out from the rest of the text on the page, so spotting them before you get to them gives you a moment to mentally brace, if you’re the type to be shocked by these things.

    I think the smartest way to classify vulgarities for censorship is to consider who is most likely to be offended and why. Who will be offended by “smartass”? It’s a common word based on a mild swear, so probably only the crustiest monocle-poppers will take offense. Who will be offended by “fancy-ass”? “Ass” only serves as an intensifier here, it has almost no meaning of its own, so it will probably bother people who dislike “gratuitous” swearing but not many others. Who will be offended by “ass-over-teakettle”? A somewhat larger anti-gratuitous-swearing crowd, since this use is more anatomical. Who will be offended by “nice ass”? A lot of people, and probably especially women, because it’s a degrading way to refer to a person and it’s often used to reduce women to their body parts and sexual functions.

    So let’s say you have a hypothetical vulgarity policy that makes it clear that you’re OK with offending monocle-poppers, you’d prefer not to upset the anti-gratuitous-swearing crowd except when necessary, and you never want to piss off huge groups of people, you might wind up with a policy that allows “smartass,” asks you to write around “fancy-ass” and “ass-over-teakettle,” and orders you to never use “nice ass,” censored or not, unless the story is about a public figure getting in hot water for saying “nice ass.”

    This works the other way too: Even a publication that routinely runs “motherfucker” in plain text might censor the N word, because the first is offensive merely because it is a swear and an improbable insult, while the second is offensive because it’s designed to dehumanize millions of people who have been the victims of enslavement and hate for centuries.
  3. Be smart about how you censor: I’m gonna let Benjamin Dreyer handle this one.

Even though the Times is usually more uptight about these things than I think they should be, their vulgarity policy clearly follows the guidelines I’ve laid out here. They decided they don’t want to offend even the most sensitive monocle-popper and set their rules accordingly, but they have not lost sight of the fact that when vulgarities are the story and the story is incredibly important, it’s worth risking a few “Well, I never!”s to make sure readers get all the whole story. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the New York Daily News.

The cat heads are, of course, in poor taste, but that’s clearly intentional, so I won’t waste my breath on them. What interests me is that this is essentially the censorship version of praeteritio: mentioning something by saying you won’t mention it. This calls far more attention to the word than just running it in plain text would — the cats are eye-catching, and instead of just replacing the letters with the cat faces, the cats are laid out to give the impression that all the letters of the word “pussy” were printed on the front page before being overlaid by six little kittens who protect your eyeballs from the word.

By contrast, here’s what it might look like if you actually wanted to censor the word but still be “edgy” by making a cat joke:

nydn-front-page

(Please excuse the extremely crude photoshop, it was the best I could do while I was writing this at the laundromat.)

So how does the New York Daily News version work with the guidelines I laid out above? Well, the policy doesn’t seem very clear, since editors seem to be OK with pretending to run the word on the front page, even highlighting it, but then kind of wimp out at the last second by pretending to censor it. It also doesn’t seem to have an ascertainable logic behind it — people who were eager to be playfully shocked by the NYDN front page would have gotten more of a charge out of running the word in full, and people who are grossed out by the word’s appearance the front page will hardly be mollified by a bit of pretend censorship that turns the story into a joke.

But hey, at least they picked one of the OK options for how many letters to censor.

6 thoughts on ““Pussy” on a hot Trump mic

  1. Chips Mackinolty October 9, 2016 / 5:20 am

    In my Down Under naivety I initially thought a “hot mic” was a US swear word I’d not heard of.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rob Chirico October 9, 2016 / 5:14 pm

    Yes, the Times has come a long way. I wrote the following in my book “Damn!” of only two years ago:

    In a rare exception after the fact, the Times did allow an expletive to go undeleted in a follow-up article to a previous column from November 10, 2008, about an insult Jesse Jackson railed at President Obama. The initial piece detailed the ensuing controversy and Jackson’s apology for what the newspaper called his “critical and crude” remarks, which included the bitter charge that Obama was “talking down to black people.” But it left readers completely in the dark about the crude part. Clark Hoyt in his column of three days later addressed the actual quote, “I want to cut his nuts off,” adding in parentheses, “The Times agreed to an exception to its decision for this column because what he said is central to this discussion.” As an aside, the Washington Post said Jackson suggested “that he wanted to castrate the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee,” and they provided a Web site video link, which the Times did not. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune cited the quote in full, but once again the New York Post came out on top by putting the single presumably offending word on its front page as a huge headline. Nevertheless, the Times is getting a bit brassier, as is evidenced by an answer in a crossword puzzle that raised some eyebrows in the puzzler community: the answer to 42 down, “What do I care?” was “screw it.”

    Hoyt cited the Times justification for the “nuts” omission: “Paul Winfield, news editor at The Times, said he and Chuck Strum, an associate managing editor, made the call to, effectively, bleep Jackson’s comments. Winfield said the remark about talking down to black people was what seemed newsworthy to him, while the vulgarity did not seem important enough to make an exception to stringent Times standards.” The paper admits that choosing when to print or omit a word or phrase can be rather dicey because it neither wants to be a holdout against modern culture nor at the forefront of defining new standards of what is acceptable. “We don’t want to cheapen ourselves,” said Craig Whitney, the standards editor of the Times. “But we don’t want to be so prissy we’re out of touch.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. old gobbo October 10, 2016 / 4:16 pm

    Your guidelines seem extremely sensible. Would just note that while “nice ass” or its UK equivalent is indeed (and alas) used in ways which demean or depersonalize women. I have also heard it used of men by women – sometimes, though rarely, as a put-down. (As a man, I am somewhat at a loss, to know why a woman should wish to praise this aspect, though I must admit that there are some men of whom it would be hard to use the phrase.)

    On the point raised by Mr Chirico, I do not remember this controversy, but suggest that the ‘nuts’ line sounds like an expression of rage (if not a metaphorical desire to impede some action that Obama was taking), rather than a serious wish: the Post’s formulation (“wished to castrate”) actually makes it sound stronger, like a real wish to physically maim.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. moonfriend October 13, 2016 / 7:53 am

    Where I’m from (Australia), ‘pussy’ is not anywhere near half a cunt. I call my kids pussies all the time.

    Like

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