Language Barriers: The New York Times' Handling of Jesse Jackson's Crude Remark about Barack Obama Rekindles the Debate about How News Outlets Should Deal with Coarse Language

By Macy, Beth | American Journalism Review, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Language Barriers: The New York Times' Handling of Jesse Jackson's Crude Remark about Barack Obama Rekindles the Debate about How News Outlets Should Deal with Coarse Language


Macy, Beth, American Journalism Review


When the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in July that he wanted to separate Barack Obama from his testicles--or, to be precise, "I want to cut his nuts off"--the incident was a brief campaign trail distraction. Jackson apologized, Obama accepted the apology and cable moved on to the next political kerfuffle.

But the episode lingered on the pages and blogs of the New York Times for a solid three weeks. At issue wasn't Jackson's temperament or the generational divide separating black leaders or even the larger context of his remark, which was that Jackson thought Obama was "talking down to black people."

The focus instead was the way the Times and other news outlets had recounted the event. While the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune printed Jackson's remarks in full and the Washington Post said Jackson "wanted to castrate the presumptive Democratic nominee," the New York Times clutched its style manual firmly to its breast, simply describing Jackson's remarks as "critical and crude" without quoting them.

Some praised the newspaper's editors for maintaining civility in uncivil times, but many argued that they were being self-righteous and kindergarten-teacher prissy at the expense of clarity. Heck, they wrote (though in all likelihood they used a more emphatic word), the paper's prim approach no doubt led many readers to imagine Jackson's remarks were even worse than they were.

Just days after obit writers praised the late comedian George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," the Jackson brouhaha left journalists and media critics debating where exactly the nebulous line of decorum should be drawn.

Was the Times' demure approach yet more evidence of the growing irrelevance of old-school newspapers in the anything-goes Internet era? Had the Times, in its effort to protect readers, simply confused them? Or was this an admirable attempt to uphold standards in a coarsening world?

Seventeen years ago, I profiled an expletive-spewing real-estate developer and former sports reporter who was ascending to fame as a Democratic political consultant. It had been a decade or more since newspapers stopped writing "criminal assault" in place of "rape," although Americans had not yet braced themselves for Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions and Tony Soprano and cyberspace rankings of hot high school girls.

Anyone who's seen Dave "Mudcat" Saunders on television or read about him in magazines and newspapers knows why I had a hard time quoting him in a family newspaper such as the Roanoke Times, where I work:

One season [in the early '70s] he was assigned to cover the Baltimore Colts, the football team that starred Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. Saunders was hanging out in the Colts' locker room after one game when Unitas had an impromptu press conference and announced he had time for one final question. ...

"Johnny, I've been watching you all year now as you go into the shower and come out, and I just have one thing to ask: Why do you always dry your [privates] before you dry your head?"

The bracketed word, by the way, was not "nuts" (to help your guessing: it starts with a "b"), and Saunders was summarily ejected from the scene.

According to a recent profile, Saunders is still somebody who "swears like he's being paid by the four-letter word."

"I feel s--y about it," he told Matt Labash in a June story for The Weekly Standard. Labash continued: "But as he once told a woman who stood up after a speech he gave to a Democratic audience to say he made compelling points, but they'd be more effective without the swearing, 'Lady, there's nothing I can do about it. Because if you'd seen what I've seen from elitist Democrats, you'd swear too.'"

Generally offered behind the scenes, Saunders' freewheeling observations are a far cry from Vice President Dick Cheney telling Sen. Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate to "go fuck yourself. …

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