Cunnilingus and the New York Times.

Cunnilingus and the New York Times.

Cunnilingus and the New York Times.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Dec. 27 2001 1:06 PM

All the Cunnilingus That's Fit To Print

Where the New York Times stands on decency at the close of 2001.

In his new book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens recommends the following daily exercise:

Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. "All the News That's Fit to Print," it says. It's been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine that most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me, and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it's as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know that I still have a pulse. … I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my life span.

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If invited by Basic Books to pen Letters to a Young Chatterbox, this columnist, who is less brilliant and excitable than Hitchens, would recommend a different tack. Rather than rail against the insult posed by "All the News That's Fit to Print," Chatterbox would advise aspiring CBs to note what the Times' ever-evolving standard of decency happens to be on any particular day. Such sociological analysis yields unusually rich findings in the Dec. 27 edition.

Our text is a feature story by Melinda Henneberger in the arts section headlined "Pompeii's Erotic Frescoes Awake." A 2,000-year-old thermal bath, discovered just outside Pompeii's city walls 15 years ago, will open to the public on Jan. 19, and the Times is offering readers a preview. Of greatest interest, apparently, are eight very frisky paintings adorning the walls, which "include the only known artistic representation of cunnilingus from the Roman era." Now, readers of the Times have likely learned to appreciate the paper's remarkable prowess in the use of color photography. Indeed, the Times probably deserves some sort of Pulitzer for the series of painterly Afghan landscape photographs that adorn the front of the daily section known in Chatterbox's house as "A Nation Poleaxed." It is therefore all the more disappointing that the handsome color photograph illustrating the Pompeii piece (and reproduced online) shows not the frescoes in question but rather a fairly ordinary mosaic of Mars, the god of war. On the jump, there's a smallish black and white photo (not available on the Web site) showing, so indistinctly as to be nearly useless, seven of the eight frescoes in question. After close inspection, Chatterbox thinks the cunnilingus scene is the fourth from the left (the caption is silent on this question), but he can't be sure. He can neither confirm nor deny the BBC's claim that the two figures are female. (Chatterbox should also note that thisLingua Franca essay by Daniel Mendelsohn appears to contest Henneberger's claim that it's hard to find depictions of cunnilingus in Roman art.) Thus the definition of "All the News That's Fit to Print," as of Dec. 27, 2001: Readers may read the word "cunnilingus," and they may squint at a low-resolution black-and-white photograph of a 2,000-year-old fresco depicting the act. But under no circumstances are they to emerge confident of what they've seen. For a better look, click here.