To bleep or not to bleep? Or more specifically, to bleep only part of a potentially offensive word in a broadcast-news story or to let it all hang out?
Those questions seem to have sparked a lively — and not suitable for audiences of all ages — debate within NPR over the past two weeks. Journalists at the Washington-based news organization have addressed such issues as whether it is all right to describe an unpleasant or unscrupulous person using a word that rhymes with “glass bowl” on an NPR broadcast or one of its podcasts (neither, it seems).
News organizations frequently wrestle with how to keep up with, or to resist, the coarsening of everyday speech. Most maintain written guidelines spelling out what’s acceptable, down to the number of dashes, asterisks or bleeps that must accompany the occasional f-bomb, s-bomb or n-word that becomes part of a news story.
Most self-edit to conform to these standards, although doing so can be awkward. The New York Times, for example, couldn’t bring itself to print the actual names of a hit off-Broadway play and a self-help book. So it referred to the play, which was called “Cock,” as “The Cockfight Play” and eliminated a certain word in a mention of the book, titled “Can’t Quit? Bullsh*t! You Can Stop Smoking.” The Washington Post split the difference on another play review, half-scrubbing its title to “The Motherf---er With the Hat.”
NPR, the nation’s most widely heard audio-news source, is in a particularly delicate position in regard to using words that the late George Carlin famously said could “infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.” Its use of vulgar or profane words can not only upset some of its millions of listeners but also get it into hot water with the federal government.
Unlike newspapers, Web sites or cable networks, the public-radio mothership and its hundreds of member stations are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and thus subject to fines for violating rules against the broadcasting of “indecent” speech. The FCC generally prohibits airing any of Carlin’s infamous seven (and variants) during certain hours. News broadcasts are usually exempt from this rule, but there are numerous ambiguities. (Podcasts are fully exempt.)
In its “Weekend Edition” segment and an accompanying Web story, NPR’s standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, laid down NPR’s basic rules: Avoid using vulgar, profane or obscene language on the air or in podcasts, except when it is absolutely necessary to convey something newsworthy, and only then when the word in question is fully bleeped. Memmott suggested this would keep touchy listeners and NPR’s legal department happy.
To which Totenberg, a veteran Supreme Court reporter, responded with the equivalent of “Objection!”
Totenberg argued for keeping a bit more reality in the news, whether on air or on a podcast, by partially bleeping certain words rather than obliterating them altogether. In a memo to newsroom staffers, she cited an audio report from Iraq by correspondent Eric Westervelt that featured soldiers’ shouted — and unbleeped — profanities during a firefight. “In life and death battles, it really would distract and sound stupid to bleep out such language,” she wrote. “We expect it in such situations.”
But Totenberg also presented a more problematic theoretical case to her colleagues: What if a prominent figure publicly insulted a female reporter by using a word that rhymes with “bunt”? (Totenberg used the word in her memo, thus eliciting Simon’s droll characterization of it.)
“Would we so totally bleep it that no one would know what he said?” she wrote. “I would want to hear the ‘c’ and the ‘t’ so I understood [it].” She concluded, “We’re a news organization, not the purity police.”
Although she is no fan of crude language generally, Totenberg said the news needs to be presented without audio shackles, or at least so meanings are clear. Her memo was prompted, she said, by NPR’s bleeping of a viral video of a racist chant by a group of Oklahoma fraternity brothers in March. “I had no idea what they were saying,” she said. “You have to at least hear some of it.”
As for the FCC, Totenberg doesn’t agree with Memmott’s warnings about potential trouble. “His view is let’s err on the side of caution,” she said. “I’d say that’s a bad legal opinion, and I would push back.”
Other broadcast news organizations say they tread delicately on their use of profanities and vulgarities on the air, using them only in extremely newsworthy instances. Like NPR, they say this is not only a reflection of being sensitive to viewers and listeners but also because the FCC is watching.
The n-word, a slur that doesn’t fall under the FCC’s “indecency” regime, may be the toughest call of all. NBC News, for example, bleeped out the word even when President Obama said it during a discussion of racial relationships last month.
The Associated Press — which supplies text, audio and video news reports to news organizations and consumers around the word — employs a variety of strategies to warn people about dicey content. Among others, it appends editor’s warnings to its text dispatches and uses dashes on certain offending words “if the obscenity involved is particularly offensive but the story requires making clear what the word was,” according to its stylebook.
As for its radio and video stories, AP’s standards editor, Tom Kent, said: “We avoid [problematic] words in any form in radio scripts and on our radio network” because of FCC regulations. An AP spokesman, Paul Colford, said the news agency warns broadcasters and digital publishers of profanities both in an accompanying script and in a “pre-roll” slate on its video. They choose whether to remove the vulgarity. In cases where AP is publishing content straight to a consumer-oriented platform, such as YouTube or its AP Mobile news app, it usually “bleeps” the word.
Despite its internal discussion, NPR hasn’t amended any of its policies regarding bleeping. But staffers such as Totenberg can hope.
Since circulating her memo on July 16, she said she has gotten many supportive comments from her colleagues, including one who agreed that the news organization is often too quick to bleep. “We can protect our audience right into a . . . coma,” the journalist wrote.