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Posted at 04:55 PM ET, 07/01/2011

Mark Halperin and the zero words you can never say on the Internet

There have been a lot of thingummies in the news lately.

Thingummies, “you-know-whats “and a couple of “rhymes withs.” Four or five “certain bits,” one or two “particular areas” and dozens of ill-framed puns.

Whenever Anthony Weiner sends out ill-advised images or MSNBC contributor Mark Halperin calls the president an ill-advised word, we go rushing to our euphemism dictionaries.

This particular area of reticence dates to an era — a scant 50 years ago — when we operated under the assumption that if you did not say a word on television or print it in the newspaper, people might not find out it existed. Sitcom mothers and father shared a warm handshake and then tucked themselves into their separate beds. Father gave a convincing illusion of Knowing Best. And if he hit his hand with a hammer he would mutter, “Landsakes!” or “Heavens to Betsy!”

Even in the ’70s, George Carlin noted the “seven words you can never say on television” in a rapid-fire litany that has become famous.

This is the fruit of a long-held belief in the halls of journalism that even if the news were obscene, the coverage needn’t be. And for years you actually could control what people learned.

But then the Internet happened.

These days, if Inquiring Minds Want To Know, they absolutely will.

The news, in recent weeks, has tended towards the unspeakable. Anthony Weiner’s “tell-tale bulge” made headlines. Mark Halperin called Barack Obama an anatomical word for moron.

It’s been a dilemma for us Mainstreamers. “All the news that’s fit to print” is the New York Times’ motto. What’s fit? And who still reads print news?

But the Internet has been steadily chipping away at this concept. Unprintable is nothing.Want to know what the word is? You can find out.

It has destroyed the illusion that you were ever capable of suppressing a picture. Want to know what Brett Favre’s personal dimensions are? You can discover this. Want to know what Bill Clinton’s definition of “is” is? You can learn.

So what’s a reputable institution to do?

As someone who found herself typing the phrase “trouser weasel” repeatedly during the course of the Anthony Weiner scandal, after deciding that my editor would probably frown on “sausage surprise” and “zipper trout,” I can speak to the perils of Curated Content.

Awkward circumlocution is the order of the day. If it weren’t for Anthony Weiner’s fortunate surname, we might never have been able to imply what his wrongdoing was about.

On the Internet, the most-attended voices are those that do not censor themselves. Bloggers and people on Twitter feeds acquire rabid fanbases by saying what they actually think, even when it’s slightly offensive or a tad obscene. This, in the olden days, was frowned upon.

The Internet gives you no points for self-censorship.

”Just because people can get it elsewhere does not mean that you should provide it here,” some argue. “That is like parents who host drunken ragers for their high schoolers. If they can go elsewhere and get it, let them!”

Well, maybe. But sometimes the news is obscene, and that is what makes it newsworthy.

Once a categorical refusal to call a spade a spade was a sign of maturity. We were, after all, protecting the Youth. “A man who would call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one,” Wilde wrote. “It is the only thing he is fit for.”

But these days perhaps you ought to just call it a spade. It is certainly less awkward than pussyfooting around and referring to it as a John Thomas or a one-eyed Charles the Snake or Unfree Willy.

I am not unsympathetic to parents’ desires to protect their children from adult content.

But you should have thought of that before you invented the Internet. Online, this censorship just looks silly.

By  |  04:55 PM ET, 07/01/2011

 
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