Friday, April 4, 2014

Ahead of the Times

Just the other day (March 30, 2014) Jesse Sheidlower writing an op-ed in the New York Times urged that old gray lady to shed her Victorian corset, bob her hair, roll her stockings, and join the Jazz Age (or at least the early twenty-first century equivalent). “The Case for Profanity in Print“ claimed the headline.

The impetus for the op-ed was the reporting (or should we say “non-reporting”?)—not only by the Times, but also by the Washington Post, Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times—of the actual remarks (characterized by Sheidlower as “some impolitic comments”) by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during a telephone call with the ambassador to Ukraine. Ms. Nuland used a word that those bastions of prudishness could only handle at prissy tongs-length by substituting asterisks or dashes for letters or euphemizing the offending language, such as calling it “a blunt expletive” (LA Times). The New York Times really topped them all by merely saying the Secretary “profanely dismissed European efforts in Ukraine as weak and inadequate.”

The DRNORMALVISION blog dealt with the issue of the faint-hearted media way back in September 2012 ( Little fish that we are, we did not expect the supposed paper of record to notice our insightful prose and to mend its lace-curtain ways. However, having a writer on its own pages urge the paper “to print exactly what we mean” gave us hope that change was here. Who were we kidding?

The article itself is a textbook example of the Times’ approach to the profane. “Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples” of words “necessary to the understanding of a story,” Sheidlower claims. So the article resorts to the “euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory”: “F-word,” “N-word,” “barnyard epithet.”

When the media do not tell us the truth, says Sheidlower, we learn “that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported.”

Which would seem to contradict the posturing of any news organ pretending to be a paper of record.


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