Until quite recently I was part of a newsroom. Because I’ve spent more than twenty years working in various newsrooms you might understand that I think of that hallowed place as more than an information factory. It was absolutely a calling for a lot of my life. I sincerely cared about those whom I served, those who chose to switch to my channel. Yes, you paper scum, it was television news. The newsroom was the place where the decisions were made to interpret information we, my fellow journalists and I, found valuable for our viewers. I did say “interpret.” Now, I do realize those of you who are knowledgeable of such a place, those of you as cynical as I, find it somewhat sentimental to regard it with such affection, considering the backstabbing and egos and power plays and sometimes downright stupidities that pass for “good news judgment.”
Still, you must admit a newsroom is a unique place in American business culture. Inside that space, the relevance of issues and the limitations of language are discussed fully, sometimes heatedly. A wide sample of the American demographic can inhabit it, necessitating general rules of engagement. Even if those rules did not exist, the expectation of mutual respect is usually enforced by all participants. Ultimately we believe the point is to craft a story to present to the public in an objective and fair fashion. Those conflicts preceding the completion of the task are sometimes necessary to define and delineate the sometimes subtle differences that may exist between one word or another, between one thought and another, between one culture and another. Context matters.
So that brings us to language. Tricky, tricky language. Here’s the reality. From your basic newsroom what goes out to the public is not only squeaky clean in terms of language, but hopefully also in terms of nuance. That is, any sentence or word that suggests the writer is trying to comment on the situation is scrubbed. Well, that’s how it used to be. My point is only to help you understand that in the age before propaganda starting seeping into the airwaves, a great amount of effort went into parsing words. I will certainly talk about propaganda, but for now I’m focused on context.
In 2014 video of a protest in Baltimore was edited by the local Fox affiliate to make it sound as if the protestors were calling for the murder of policemen.
This was the actual chant:
We won’t stop.
We can’t stop.
‘Til killer cops.
Are in cell blocks.
The edited version sounded like this:
We won’t stop.
We can’t stop.
So kill a cop.
To its credit the station fired the reporter and photographer responsible. I have no idea if the editing was done intentionally to make it sound as if the protestors were saying "so kill a cop," or if the ineptitude was such that to save a couple seconds the editor decided to chop off, "are in cell blocks." Regardless, the actual statement was taken out of context. Even politicians use things out of context, but that's precisely why journalists must be vigilant. Complaints arrive at stations for using video out of context. I've also seen a young reporter use only a section of a soundbite and then write an introduction to fit the bite. The man she interviewed complained. When we listened to the entire soundbite, the opposite meaning was communicated. When we questioned the reporter she really didn't seem to understand what she'd done wrong.
Meanwhile, as corporate HR departments take over newsrooms in smaller markets they are having to deal with an increasing number of new hires, fresh out of school in their first jobs, who aren't comprehending the difference between being pushed to work harder and hostility. There is absolutely a difference between some Millennials and the generations before. We, as parents, have certainly protected them, perhaps sheltered them from life. Now, as employers, we have the unenviable task of presenting the "real world" to them, which can be quite ugly sometimes in this business. So how do you stress the importance of context to someone who through habits of distraction and misunderstanding of intent, can't tell the difference between, say, racism and talking about racism, or sexism and talking about sexism, or a safe space and a public space?
Interestingly enough, a good way to explain context to a Millennial, who may be determined to swipe left on most topics that require concentration, is to talk about the use of profanity in the newsroom. Kids may use profanity between themselves all the time, but if they hear it from an authority figure on the job they may take it personally, again, because they can't tell the difference between a hostile working environment and an environment that can be hostile to one's world view. I've seen the look on an MMJ's face the first time she returns from a particularly grisly wreck. I've seen her disgust when she reads a particularly horrific court description of what an old man did to a child. That's all dark stuff and most of it doesn't go out over the air. Most of the worst stuff stays in the newsroom. How do you know what to release? A lot of it is ethics. A lot of it is knowing your public's sensibilities. A lot of it is context. The police are looking for a suspect and he's described as a black man. So long as they're looking for him that fact should be aired. However, after the suspect has been captured I've seen a producer write copy continuing to quote witnesses who said the suspect is a black man. Obviously that's irrelevant at a certain point and if the producer continues to point out the person's race, the action could be interpreted as racism.
Part of the problem is that the corporate master, who uses HR as a degree of control, isn't interested in such parsing so long as no lawsuits are being considered because of the imperfect story. The HR department is going to be concerned about maintaining a linguistically pristine environment in a place where language is traditionally messy.
I know kids have fun using profanity. I certainly did when I was their age. I visited a popular Millennial news site, Buzzfeed, and copied these two headlines:
"Here's Proof That Doing Yoga Around Your Dog Is Fucking Impossible"
"Holy Shit, Britney Spears Singing "Toxic" Without Auto-Tune Has Leaked"
Despite the flack they got releasing the controversial Trump dossier Buzzfeed is respected in journalistic circles. While more traditional sites might use the silly, "F***" euphemism, Buzzfeed knows its demographic. I can certainly demonstrate context using a more socially acceptable example, but it’s precisely the illogical knee-jerk reaction against specific words I wish to point out, and the very wide interpretations that come come from a single word. In a newsroom, where many unsavory things are examined, there must be a willingness to look at an issue with at least an attempt at objectivity. One must step back and examine a word or thought to determine its meaning, which will facilitate a more accurate interpretation. Also, newsrooms tend to be diverse these days, racially, ethnically, religiously, geographically, economically, and in life experience. Female and male and everyone identifying in-between are part of newsroom culture so it becomes paramount to understand each other’s preconceptions and expectations.
Everyone must be trained to know where the boundaries are. Young reporters may like to indulge in profanity, but they should not do so in the field while covering a story, during an interview, or God forbid, anywhere near a microphone. Young people especially, but many older folks too, have what is basically a "generalization" problem. They'll tend to generalize what should be specific. They'll think if their interview subject, a lawyer, says recreational marijuana should be legal, they'll think all attorneys think all marijuana should be legal. They may even phrase it that way in their attribution. "Attorneys say..." rather than "one attorney says..." They'll think if a witness uses the word, "shit," it's okay to use the word as well, or to use any profane word around that witness, which definitely is not the case. It's a pet peeve of mine, but it underscores a certain propensity when writers use the words, "any" and "all."
Not every news person uses profanity in the newsroom but many do, and gender has nothing to do with it. Women hurl “f-bombs” as frequently as men. We have a dual reality, the face up front and the more honest person around colleagues. That’s no different from any business, of course, but news people have the added celebrity factor, the public’s expectation that what they see on television is what they’ll see in public. When I was an anchor I couldn't go to Target and hurl "f-bombs" at people without repercussions. So let's talk about context and why it’s important in news. We’ll begin with a word that has many grey areas and a surprisingly large number of euphemisms. In fact, there's a show on Fox right now called, The F-Word.
Now, when I say “f-word”, you know what I mean. Of course you do. And when I say “f-bomb” your mind interprets it as “fuck.” I communicated a profanity without actually uttering it. If I get mad and say “fudge,” you can be assured of experiencing the same thing. The same goes for the word “freaking,” as in “that’s freaking fantastic,” or "fricking." And there's the oil version, "fracking." We've had fun with that one too, not in a political sense, but in the sense that it's similar to "fricking." The speaker may claim ignorance, and quite honestly, these days, that’s a possibility, considering our utter lack of comprehension of context or history, but the word would not have been used in that way had “that’s fucking fantastic,” not been used first and was immediately frowned upon by the judgmental crowd at the ice cream parlor. The same goes for “wtf,” and “shut the front door.” All these imaginative euphemisms have been created because for some reason the actual word has been given an extraordinary power. Yet, the point apparently lost on many people is that vastly more often than not, when the profanity is actually said, it's not used in a sexual manner, and that manner, I assume, is what makes the word profane for many. We can’t say the word or have video of someone saying it without getting into trouble with some viewers, and, of course, the FCC.
Moving a shade greyer toward the sexual intent would be an expression like, “Fuck me!” when you’re angry, not sexually aroused, implying circumstances have screwed you over. It's an interesting inconsistency, that it’s apparently acceptable to say “you really got screwed!” Still, none of the above examples equate to the obvious sexual nature of the profanity which could appropriately be interpreted as sexual harassment. However, some people will not make the distinction and will generalize, declaring all uses of the word profane, just as some people will say a book like Huckleberry Finn, which examines racism, is racist.
So if a man screams “peanut brittle” when he hits his finger with a hammer, his friends would probably consider him somewhat childish, because although he avoided communicating a profanity, he nevertheless communicated a word quite out of context of the experience of pain. He could have screamed “abracadabra!” At least there’s magic in that word.
Not knowing how consciousness worked thousands of years ago I am open to the suggestion words did have some sort of power over another person if that person accepted the word's power. You know, curses and such. Even today some cultures hold "a man's word" in high esteem. "My word is my bond," On the whole, though, does anyone today believe there is inherent power in a word? The politically correct crowd does, and would insist you say something less offensive, no matter what you're communicating. In a professional milieu why would anyone want to unnecessarily offend someone? On the other hand, in the news business, the phrase "politically correct" should come with a trigger warning. The term is identified with the left but it can be applied to the right as well. It can simply be described as propaganda. I used to be a producer for two hosts, one a white lawyer, the other a hispanic lawyer. The white lawyer insisted we use the term "illegal immigrant." The hispanic lawyer insisted on the term "undocumented migrant." Euphemisms and framing have long been public relations tactics. To anyone but PR people, PR is propaganda. The very idea that objectivity is impossible so one should not even try to apply it is a PR tactic. If not for political purpose, using a euphemism for profanity is basically, childishly, abrogating one’s responsibility. “I really didn’t say it so I shouldn’t be in trouble.”
Let's try the other Buzzfeed headline. Last night I heard Anthony Bourdain in Antarctica say "shit" on the narrator's track and in conversation on his show on CNN. Cable, clearly, has more freedom in that regard, but again, broadcast restrictions aside, there must not be an effort to censor in the newsroom. At a pitch meeting a manager hears a producer telling a reporter that he needs to get to a town for a story before three o’clock or schools will be out and he “won’t get shit.” The reporter understands the context and isn’t offended, but it prompts the manager to announce that profanity, like the word used for "excrement,” must not be used in the newsroom. Although she is obviously intelligent enough to understand the context of the statement to mean “nothing” rather than “excrement,” she nevertheless chooses to literally interpret the word, communicating an image of a pile of poo poo, rather than the thought of achieving nothing if time is not used wisely. Presumably she believes she’s protecting the sensitivities of the newsroom. And presumably, had the producer said “you won’t get poo-poo,” that term would not have been pooh-poohed, even though now, one is actually communicating an image of excrement described by a child. While the original intent of the phrase, “you won’t get shit” was probably a description of not getting anything better than a pile of steaming excrement, the meaning has changed over time to mean one will receive “nothing.”
Nevertheless, manure is something we all produce. We even use it for fertilizer. A piece of manure is equivalent to a piece of excrement, which is equivalent to a piece of shit. Despite a liberal attitude toward Bourdain, on June 9th, 2017, CNN's website reported Reza Aslan was no longer connected with the network, "... the network decided to break off the production relationship after Aslan called President Trump a piece of excrement, using an expletive..." Obviously Aslan did not say "piece of excrement." Had he done so, he might still be connected to CNN, but CNN's reporting of the event is extraordinarily childish. I suspect had Aslan called someone else a piece of shit, there would have been no problem. But he used a profanity against the president, so CNN acted. But then the editor of the website became a profanity authority, or simply got cold feet. Guess what? It was communicated to me without uttering the profanity so good little CNN isn't going to get into trouble! Yay, CNN! Thank you for protecting me!
The problem with profanity is that no one really wants to defend it so arbitrary self-appointed language authorities dominate. Why spend your political capital on a right to use the word, “shit,” in a non-excremental or excremental context? However, like so many things many of us find distasteful but useful, “shit” exists and has existed for a very long time in many languages. Had the phrase “you won’t get merde” been used, little would have been said and the euphemism rule would have been preserved and those who recognized the French allusion would have been pleased with themselves. However, the profane will continue to exist because despite the efforts of French Marxist postmodern armchair literary philosophers like Derrida and Foucault, who helped lay the foundation for what we now call political correctness, despite those who believe changing language will change reality, changing “shit” to “excrement” does not change “nothing” to “shit.” Take that Karl Marx! Context matters.
I would be remiss, however, not pointing out the genius of the idea behind PC by referring to philosopher Bertrand Russell who pointed out in The History Of Western Philosophy the Christian tendency to reformat Judaism and the Marxist tendency to do the same to Christianity.
“To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:
Yahweh = Dialectial Materialism
The Messiah = Marx
The Elect = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
The Second Coming = The Revolution
Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth”
Fundamentalism has been exposed as a dangerous limitation in language and international politics. Here in the West the focus on the literal interpretation of the text has created religious conflict as well as legal loopholes. Having the ability to understand subtle differences in the use of language is just darned important in a newsroom. Knowing how to navigate the grey is a learned skill honed by experience. Veterans teach rookies. Colleges, apparently, aren’t going to do it. They'd spend most of the time on trigger warnings.
Teaching young reporters to be balanced during political season, or not to convict someone before a trial is hard enough, and they should have learned those things in school, but teaching them that a world exists beyond their narrow youthful experience is impossible without exposing them to the very things that lay outside their comfort zones, such as stories dealing with death and violence and abortions and the death penalty and marijuana legalization and same-sex marriages and Russian interference in our elections.
A young reporter, not schooled in context, may use the term “Pro-life” rather than “anti-abortion,” because that’s the term his interview subject used and he was unaware of the branding aspect of the movement and the media’s responsibility not to appear to promote that movement. That’s straight out of the AP Style Guide. Or worse still, that reporter may, in fact, agree with the movement (which is not a problem) but then not comprehend that there is another side to it (which is a problem). Reporters may, in fact, have never heard of Roe v. Wade or even know what the “v” is. These college graduates may not even know there are three branches of government, much less a Supreme Court. True stories. A reporter once demonstrated in a stand-up a particular political ritual a political party was using to express discontent with the other political party. The reporter didn’t understand he was tacitly approving the ritual by demonstrating it himself. Context matters.
So finally, let's put all of this into the proper context. In a newsroom, when we're deciding what we should or should not report, if we actually care about reporting the truth as we know it, we should not be distracted by childish priorities such as forbidding profanities or adhering to politically-correct standards. There's a much more dangerous problem seeping into the newsroom like a lethal black mold. It's called propaganda. The people who produce it and send it along call it many things, but it's information with an agenda. And here's the irony. Young people already know the many facets of the words "fuck" and "shit." They learned that shit in middle school if not before. However, if they're not taught to be skeptical of authority figures and their agendas, to see though them by learning the tricks of public relations, and to report accordingly, this nation is lost. That's not hyperbole. We have a First Amendment for a reason. And if someone in the news room doesn't know that reason, that person must be full of excrement.