These are glorious times for euphemisms.
CNN said Wednesday that it had suspended Roland Martin, one of its commentators, three days after he posted Twitter messages that were interpreted by some to be anti-gay.
Here’s how the Associated Press described those tweets:
CNN suspended political analyst Roland Martin on Wednesday for “offensive” tweets during the Super Bowl that some critics said were anti-gay.
Here are the tweets themselves:
“If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him! #superbowl”
“Who the hell was that New England Patriot they just showed in a head to toe pink suit? Oh, he needs a visit from team #whipdatass”.
For context, here is the David Beckham underwear ad to which the first tweet refers:
There’s nothing factually wrong with how the New York Times and the AP abridged the tweets. Yes, the tweets were “interpreted by some to be anti-gay.” That’s well documented. And yes, “some critics” indeed said they were “anti-gay.” Again, well documented.
Yet the treatment by these cornerstone media properties remains silent on what the tweets actually are. In both cases, Martin is encouraging physical reprisals against men who are attracted to the same sex. There’s also some stereotyping thrown in — ”pink suit” — to eliminate all doubt about the population Martin is offending.
This blog has repeatedly termed the tweets “homophobic,” a characterization that has drawn some blowback in the comments. Commenter “jlamb1313” opined that the tweets “reflect the knee-jerk masculine thinking that many Americans revel in during the Superbowl. A conversation about that overt masculinity may be long overdue, but to see violent gay-bashing in those quotes strikes me as overreach.” Wrote ”QStorm,” in part, “The guy was making jokes. Nothing more.” Another critic e-mailed: “You convicted him of being ‘homophobic’ based on your irrational (in my opinion) interpretation of his tweets, which any reasonable person would interpret as simply an attempt at humor and in no way calling for violence against homosexuals.”
Of course, none of those excuses fetches as far as Martin’s very own, which was that he was just making jokes about soccer. The unfunny thing about these defenses is that, in light of gays’ experience in this country, joking about violence against gays in any way is homophobic, is anti-gay.
So why can’t this reality be conveyed in a news article in the mainstream press? When asked about the New York Times’s treatment, the paper’s standards editor, Philip Corbett, responded that the article in question “described the dispute over what Martin said and what he meant by it; Martin was actively asserting a different interpretation of his remarks. I know from your own post that you found his assertions unconvincing, but in reporting on the dispute, I don’t think our news item should necessarily have reflected a definitive judgment or conclusion by our reporter on that question.” (The AP took a pass on commenting about its approach.)
High standards around phrasing and reporting drive excellence at the New York Times and the Associated Press. Their reporters don’t throw their prejudices willy-nilly into every story, though critics of both institutions insist otherwise. But just how far over the line does one have to go in stereotyping and attacking gays before a newspaper feels empowered to call it “anti-gay” without qualifiers?
Corbett suggests that doing so requires a troublesome “judgment.” That formulation, I think, overstates things. What’s at issue here is a mere description. Journalists deploy shorthand descriptions all the time — describing a candidate’s position, or a politician’s history with women, or a telling historical episode. Editors and style guides fully authorize reporters to describe all such things. When the thing to be described is potentially racist or homophobic, however, it’s time to punt.
And punting doesn’t release the outlet from making a judgment. When you write that the tweets were “interpreted” as being anti-gay, you’re suggesting that they’re not anti-gay on their very face. They were.
Euphemistic abridgements of offensive scribblings also surfaced in coverage of Ron Paul’s decades-old newsletters. In a Jan. 4 story, the New York Times reported that Paul “faced new scrutiny over racially charged statements in newsletters distributed under his name that he later disavowed.”
The Washington Post used the “racially charged” shorthand in a Jan. 27 story that cast doubt on the candidate’s disavowals. In a follow-up story on Paul’s refutation of that story, the Associated Press characterized the newsletters as “provocative, racially charged.” Sorry, “provocative”: The AP didn’t mean to malign you like that.
The Post also wrote in December that the newsletters carried comments that “critics say are racist and anti-Semitic.”
Just what material are these outlets calling provocative and racially charged? A few samples:
“Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began.”
“opinion polls consistently show only about 5% of blacks have sensible political opinions”
“if you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be”
Does anyone need a “critic” to call that stuff racist? To be fair, the outlets above have used stronger language on occasion in referring to the Paul newsletters, but the fabric softeners are everywhere in Nexis.
Not only does “racially charged” give Paul and his publishing entrepreneurs too much credit, it also deprives “racially charged” of a future. Newt Gingrich’s famous face-off with Fox News’s Juan Williams, for instance, was “racially charged,” but it wasn’t offensive, at least not in the way that the Paul newsletters are.
Washington Post copy-editing chief Jesse Lewis doesn’t see things that way, saying: “A debate on racial relations that didn’t include racist aspersions wouldn’t be seen as racially charged. Seems that would just be a debate. When aspersions are cast, that’s when things get charged.”
Continues Lewis: “ ‘Racially charged’ is a more appropriate term when a newsletter invokes race but crosses a range of controversial issues. Race was one factor, but not necessarily the only issue here. There were also unpopular or questionable positions on a range of issues, not only race, but also including politics and economics. I think you have to reserve the term racist to pamphlets and publications whose sole purpose is to instigate racial hatred, and as we all know there are extremist groups that regularly put out those kinds of publications.”
Corbett, of the New York Times, points out that his paper has used ”white supremacist” and “antiblack” to describe some of the newsletter writings. Regarding the broader terms, Corbett says:
Sometimes such shorthand characterizations are necessary and inevitable to refer briefly to an issue that we’ve recounted in detail elsewhere. But I think you’re right to suggest that journalists must be careful with this kind of shorthand. Sometimes the shorthand version may omit nuance or important qualification; but in other cases, the shorthand may be so vague that it understates or obscures the reality.
Reuters media critic Jack Shafer endorses the reluctance to pepper news stories with explosive terms: “It is like linguistic Tabasco — you put one drop of it into the article, it overwhelms the article. If you want to use those words — homophobic, racist or anti-Semitic — you better have a very good justification for them,” he says.
Right. And in these two cases, the homophobic tweets and racist newsletters do just that.