October 14, 2011

A war of words is being waged in The Post newsroom and, readers, you may be able to help mediate.

This war is literally over words — when should the racier versions of darn, heck, bull droppings and the word that rhymes with rich be allowed into the paper and online? And should the f-bomb ever be allowed, and what about that verb you do with a straw and a vanilla malt?

I have to be careful here because I railed against obscenity in e-mail a while back. But that was about attack epithets, used to intimidate and injure, that grow out of partisan, ideological or racial hatred. I’m not talking about that.

This is more about whether The Post should reflect in its stories how people talk, whether and how to quote them when they swear, and whether as writers we can occasionally throw in the well-placed expletive to convey emphasis, tone and verisimilitude.

I’m going to draw the lines starkly here, to define the conflict, but they’re actually fuzzier than I’ll indicate.

On one side are some of the more adventurous writers at The Post, people such as Gene Weingarten or Dan Zak, a Style writer who is now in Baghdad for a couple of months. Zak cites several incidents in which his use of colorful language was killed or changed by editors. He believes that made dull what had been vivid.

Here’s an opening to a story he wrote on the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in February and the female dog that won it. (Okay, you’ve been cautioned about what’s coming, and it’s mildly sexist.) This is the version that did not run:

“After winning ‘best in show’ from the Westminster Kennel Club, a dog has every right to get cranky, to go diva, to not sit, to not stay. But over the past 24 hours, as paparazzi have trailed her around New York, Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind has borne her title with quiet dignity and grace. This bitch isn’t acting like one.”

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.”

Zak describes himself as a “libertine” in these matters. The Post has become too puritanical in recent years, he said, adding, “We act as if we’re scared and we don’t want to offend anyone. . . . You’re totally neutering and blandifying and taking a step away from truth when you’re sanitizing language like that.”

Arrayed against this phalanx of writers is Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Post, and other editors who say there is usually a way to indicate foul language without, in fact, using it.

“We should take a broad view of what constitutes foul language and avoid using it gratuitously,” Brauchli said. “That first part is important, because a lot of colloquial phrases have origins that should preclude their use in The Post. When people we’re writing about resort to expletives or obscenities, we generally try to find ways to describe what they’ve said without imposing the language, verbatim, on readers.”

Brauchli notes that, in a recent piece on the breakdown of comity in the D.C. City Council, two swear words were published because they were essential to the story, and that The Post published Vice President Cheney’s infamous epithet hurled at Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) in 2004. “But in truth,” Brauchli continued, “I’m not sure we couldn’t have conveyed even those episodes without printing the obscenities.”

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. And, in them, please restrain your inner Cheney.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.