When the news gets shitty

Back in October, news spread about an anonymous crowdsourced list titled “Shitty Media Men,” which compiled various rumors and allegations of sexual misdeeds by men in the media industry. “Shitty Media Men” became newsworthy again this week after Twitter started buzzing that Harper’s was planning to publish a piece by Katie Roiphe that would reveal the name of the list’s creator. That led to several writers declaring that they would pull stories from Harper’s in protest. In a piece for The Cut, Moira Donegan bravely stepped forward to identify herself as the creator of the list.

Here I won’t dwell on the shittiness of the media men’s alleged behavior, or the shittiness of Harper’s and Roiphe for whatever plans they might have had to out Donegan and expose her to potential abuse. (Roiphe claims she wasn’t going to name Donegan without permission, but a fact-checker from Harper’s contacted Donegan and told her she was going to be identified.) Rather, let’s look at how newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times are handling the shitty word at the center of this shitty story.

On the afternoon of Jan. 10, the Post published two online opinion pieces about the firestorm of criticism that Harper’s was receiving. Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a piece headlined, “Is outing the creator of the media men list wrong? Not necessarily.” Rosenberg in turn quotes a piece by Clio Chang on Splinter titled, “I Can’t Believe This Needs Saying but Doxxing the Woman Behind the Shitty Media Men List Is Wrong.” But the Post expurgated the Splinter headline, rendering it as “the [S—–] Media Men List.”

The other Post opinion piece, by Molly Roberts, went with the headline, “The bad media men list ‘outing’ story has a happy ending.” The name of the list was again expurgated in the text of the piece, this time appearing as “the ‘Sh–ty Media Men’ list.”

The Times, meanwhile, reported a news story on the controversy with an online headline of “‘Media Men’ List Creator Outs Herself, Fearing She Would Be Named.” (That’s how it appeared after Donegan identified herself. The print version in the Jan. 11 paper is headlined, “Harper’s Writer Undergoes Trial by Twitter Over Article.”) Unlike the Post, though, the Times went ahead and wrote out “Shitty Media Men” in the text of the article with no expurgation.

Times style generally eschews the use of dashes or asterisks to bowdlerize profanity, but in the past they have often found more circuitous methods of taboo avoidance. The use of shitty here perhaps signals a growing acceptance of publishing taboo words outright rather than dancing around them.

This is not, however, the first time that the word shitty has appeared in the pages of the New York Times. It’s been published online in Times blogs from 2007 and 2009, but those don’t really count. The first time I find it in the print edition is in an advertisement for an art exhibit in May and June 2011, “Shitty Heaven” by Simon Evans at the James Cohan gallery.

As far as I can tell, shitty first entered a news story in the print edition of the Times on Feb. 28, 2016, in the front-page article, “Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall,” about the role of Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, in the ouster of Qaddafi from Libya. Deep into the article, a quote is featured from Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., telling her French counterpart Gérard Araud in 2011, “You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war.” (The “shitty war” quote was first reported by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker in May 2013.)

Strong Language has been documenting the Times’s gradual loosening of its standards on profanities in print, beginning with Ben Yagoda’s post, “‘Bullshit’ now fit to print” (Aug. 20, 2015). I wrote about the Times’s blunt treatment of Donald Trump’s profanity on the Access Hollywood tape (“A banner day for profanity,” Oct. 8, 2016) as well as Anthony Scaramucci’s notorious career-ending rant (“Mooch mouth: Scaramucci takes public profanity to a new level,” July 28, 2017). Gone are the days, it seems, when the Times would “only take shit from the president,” as the late editor Abe Rosenthal reportedly said.

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