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Very, Very Bad Words

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner

It has always been a question of earth-shattering importance: are newspaper Ombudsmen terrible because the job is a hopeless one, or are they terrible because newspapers make wretched hires? As urgent as this matter remains, one thing can be agreed upon at once: even those who believe the former must concede that the major papers have done an abysmal job of filling these positions. 

I’m a little late coming to this, but a few weeks ago, Patrick Pexton, The Washington Post’s Ombudsman, wrote a column about the use of bad words in the paper. This is the sort of “controversy” that Ombudsmen often face: the paper wants to quote someone swearing, but what about the sensibilities of readers? What about the poor teenager who might be scanning The Washington Post over breakfast, only to notice that Dick Cheney told Patrick Leahy to go fuck himself? What of the decent society we once had that is now giving way to barbarism? 

To his credit, Pexton did not argue that curse words should never be used. He admitted to sympathy for a writer who underwent the following edit: 

Zak had another story altered, in one installment of this summer’s “Night Lives” series about nocturnal occupations in which he rode with paramedics. The emergency workers were called to a dive bar and came upon a man bleeding from a fight in which broken beer bottles were used. Zak’s “Someone beat the hell out of this guy,” was changed to “He has been badly beaten.” 

Pexton takes Zak’s side, but with painful earnestness. A proper answer to the dilemma raised above would be to write, say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

Anyway, the reason the column caught my attention was what Pexton wrote in his conclusion. Seemingly interested in pleasing all sides, or at least as many people as he could, Sexton limply wrote: 

I’m more in the Zak camp. I would have cleared all of these uses of edgy language. But I also agree with Post editors and writers who say that the newsroom guidelines are fuzzy; some clarity is needed. Nor would I want to see daily, gratuitous swear words in The Post. That would be unnecessary, could offend readers and would reduce those words’ effectiveness. Occasionally, though, a writer needs to take a risk to tell a story faithfully and creatively, and that risk should be rewarded. Asking writers to forsake any foul language would be like asking artists to paint without the color blue. But readers, this is your publication, too, so weigh in on comments or via e-mail.

In other words, let’s take a vote, or a poll, or whatever. Hey, this is America: readers can decide! This counsel is inadvertently worse than the Fox News slogan of “we report, you decide,” which at least implies Fox makes the decisions about how and what to report. (Perhaps Sexton thinks Fox’s global warming coverage should be determined by a viewer poll). 

But now the results are in, Sexton informs us in a follow-up blog post, and guess what: the people who wrote to Pexton—that’s right, the people who actually took the time to write letters to the Ombudsman about this dire subject—are against swearing. Some of them are even concerned parents. Pexton seems somewhat surprised by this result, although at least he admits the sample was unscientific. 

Readers can probably guess that I tend to favor a permissive attitude toward the use of expletives, but the responses provoked by Sexton do beg the obvious question about swearing that I have always found strange: what are parents afraid will happen if their kids hear swearing? No one has ever even bothered to give an answer, other than “they might start swearing,” which of course they already do, and which also begs the corollary question of “and then what are you afraid of?” With sex and violence, at least one can construct a plausible scenario whereby watching, say, pornography makes kids think, “that looks fun, I want to do that even though I am only 13.” And violence might conceivably give children nightmares or make them prone to aggression. (I have no idea if the latter is true, but at least it’s an answer). 

But back to Ombudsmen: being the reader’s representative should imply representation, not submission. A newspaper does not belong to readers.