When Do Papers Print the F-Word?
How do newspaper editors decide?
In a front-section story by Helen Dewar and Dana Milbank today, the Washington Post quoted an intemperate remark that Vice President Dick Cheney made to Sen. Patrick Leahy Tuesday on the floor of the Senate. (The vice president reportedly said, "Fuck yourself.") The Post printed the F-bomb verbatim, while other newspapers that reported on the argument cloaked the veep's "fuck" in classic newspaper-ese: Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today's New York Times wrote that Cheney used "an obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr. Leahy should do," leaving out, of course, the fact that what the vice president thought Mr. Leahy should do was anatomically improbable. How do newspapers decide whether or not to print "fuck" in their pages?
Editors weigh the newsworthiness of the event in question against concerns about community standards. Readers can be just as distracted when a newspaper clumsily sidesteps profanity as when a paper uses it; it's up to the editor to decide whether the journalistic purpose of the story is best served by bluntness or decorum.
According to the Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, his conversation with Executive Editor Leonard Downie yesterday clarified the paper's long-standing policy on the use of profanity on its pages. "The paper doesn't do it unless it's exceptionally newsworthy and necessary for readers to understand and make a judgment" on the story, Getler says. Downie approved the A4 profanity himself, according to Getler, because Cheney's remarks were made in public and "not in a casual way." Getler notes, though, that had the story been on the front page, the specific language likely would have been alluded to or pushed past the jump.
A single use of "fuck" in the context of a legitimate news story, of course, doesn't exceed the current legal standard of obscenity, the Miller test, which is derived from the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. California (1978). Even if you believe that what Dick Cheney said to Patrick Leahy "describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way," it would be hard to argue that a Page A4 Washington Post piece as a whole "lacks serious value and appeals to a prurient interest in sex."
The most recent use of the term in most newspapers came in 1998, when the Post, the New York Times, and other papers reprinted the complete Starr Report, including Monica Lewinsky's declaration that Bill Clinton "helped fuck up [her] life." The Los Angeles Times has used the word three other times since 1985. Before today, and aside from the Starr Report, the decorous Post had printed "fuck" only one other time since 1987, in a direct quote in a 1992 feature about a death-row inmate's final days. (The paper even puckishly directs Web surfers who search for profanity in the Post's archives to the Miss Manners column.) Other media outlets, typically more daring in their verbiage, are another matter entirely. A Nexis search for uses of "fuck" in the Village Voice yields more than 1,000 hits; a similar search through the archives of the Seattle alternative weeklythe Stranger yields 2,180, most of which involve Dan Savage directly. The wilting daisies here at Slate have used "fuck" on 185 occasions—oops, 186.
Although the Post has received several dozen mostly negative e-mails and phone calls, ombudsman Getler believes that in printing the word, the paper did the right thing. He's more offended by the identification given to Cheney by Dewar and Milbank in the sentence in which the quotation was printed: " 'Fuck yourself,' said the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency." "They should have edited that out," Getler says. "After all that long discussion about whether to use the word, the article should've been beyond reproach journalistically. That smart-alecky remark diminishes the paper and weakens the integrity of the piece."
Explainer thanks Bob Penchina at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, L.L.P. and Aly Colòn at the Poynter Institute.
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Photograph of Vice President Cheney by Claro Cortes IV/Reuters.