The Post Spreads the Word
By Michael Getler
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page B06
It seems obscene to write about an obscenity on the Fourth of July. But last week's buzz among readers and writers was in large part about Vice President Cheney's use of an obscenity directed at Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) during a photo session on the Senate floor, and The Post's decision to print what Cheney said. The story, by reporters Helen Dewar and Dana Milbank, appeared on Friday, June 25 (after the deadline for last week's column), and I believe The Post was alone among major news organizations in printing the obscenity. The paper didn't say he used the F-word; it didn't use a series of dashes or the phrase "expletive deleted." It printed Cheney's actual word, and the phones starting ringing.
On Saturday, perhaps in part because of my urging that the paper explain itself, there was a brief story on Page C4 of the Style section quoting Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who made the decision to use the word, as saying: "When the vice president of the United States says it to a senator in the way in which he said it on the Senate floor, readers need to judge for themselves what the word is because we don't play games at The Washington Post and use dashes."
I think The Post made the right decision here, and the fact that it seems to be alone on it also strikes me as in keeping with the paper's personality, its willingness to push journalistic conventions at times.
The paper is careful about this particular word and its use is very rare. The Post, along with other papers, used it in 1998 when it appeared in the report by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, a report that dwarfed anything else in terms of explicit sexual material put before the public in newspapers. The four-letter version of the word also appeared in a 1992 Post story about a death row inmate; in other forms or spellings it appeared in a 2002 story about an investigation of Wall Street analysts and a 1987 profile of former White House press secretary James S. Brady.
Long-standing Post internal guidelines describe the situation that unfolded pretty well. "We shall avoid profanities and obscenities unless their use is so essential to a story of significance that its meaning is lost without them. . . . In quotations, such words may be published in the rare cases where they are necessary to the understanding of a person or situation, as in an article about a prominent official berating subordinates in harsh language. The classic example was John F. Kennedy's description of business executives as 'sons of bitches.' "
Cheney is also president of the Senate, and Downie and other editors argue that this comment, directed as an insult to a senior senator from an opposing party on the Senate floor, was made in a "purposeful" way that made it definitely newsworthy, and that the power of the story lay in using the exact words so readers could form their own opinions.
There were scores of calls and e-mails. Some reflected political attitudes and accusations of political bias. But most of the messages, I thought, captured a sincere division of opinion. Some felt The Post had diminished its stature and responsibilities as a keeper of standards, and had given in to the coarsening of politics and society. "Believe it or not, there are still many of us out here who are offended by profanity," one reader said. "The fact that politicians use profanity is hardly new," added another. "The gratuitous lowering of Post standards is the real story here." He also called attention to one of the guiding principles of The Post's modern founder, Eugene Meyer, who said: "What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old." Several readers objected to seeing the word in print because their youngsters read the paper.
Yet a roughly equal number defended the decision. "Thank you for realizing the paper is read by adults. I'm so sick of people shrieking about 'the children.' The Post is a newspaper, not a children's magazine," a reader said. Others said that any youngster who could get to the third paragraph of a story under a one-column headline on Page A4 (which is where the first story appeared) had undoubtedly heard that word before. "Too much nowadays is glossed over, is turned into euphemism," said one reader. Perhaps those complaining should be more concerned "about who was using" the language, said another reader, and another said the word "carries a lot more weight than [expletive] yourself."
The Post story also pointed out that both Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) last year, and George W. Bush as a campaigner in 1999, had been quoted as using the same word. But that usage came in interviews with Rolling Stone and Talk magazines, respectively, and Post editors said those situations were very different from what took place in the Senate, and that there was no need to repeat those and other expletives for this story.
Having obviously put a lot of thought and deliberation into deciding to use Cheney's exact language, Post editors then proceeded to neglect their responsibilities, in my view and those of several readers, by failing to take out some smart-aleck and tendentious writing by the reporters. I'm not going to repeat the word, but the key sentence read: " '[Expletive] yourself,' said the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency." Why not just say, "said the vice president," as one reader asked. "This is uncalled for," said another, "a form of denigration." You are "implying that a very angry man could easily become president," wrote another. "My God! A ticking time bomb, ready to explode! A real Howard Dean!" said another. Then there was a line that said, "This was not the first foray into French by Cheney and his boss." What does French have to do with this?
This was guaranteed to be an explosive story because of the language. It should have been done in a way that was beyond reproach journalistically.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.|