Last year, newspapers across the country published stories on Page 1 about two obscenity cases involving the rap group 2 Live Crew.
But no major daily paper printed any of the allegedly obscene lyrics that caused the entire controversy. Very few papers even described the lyrics in anything but the most general terms.
The Washington Post may have been among the most graphic, citing lyrics that referred to "breaking the walls of a woman's vagina . . . a man forcing anal sex on a woman and later making her lick feces." Most other newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, used such non-specific descriptions as "crude and graphic sexual language."
Why are newspaper editors--who are generally insistent that their reporters be specific and detailed in their stories, especially on controversial issues--so squeamish about telling readers exactly what stories are really about when the subject is related to sex?
Because newspaper editors know that many readers are offended by graphic language--and, especially, obscene language--that involves sexual and scatological terms. Language that might seem acceptable in a movie, where it's evanescent--uttered and gone in a millisecond--or even in a book, which will have limited access, may offend mightily in a "family newspaper," where it's printed in black and white, there forever for children and all to see. So editors resort to euphemisms--"a four-letter vulgarism"--or dashes ("f---")--or they ignore the terms altogether.
A newspaper is generally seen as "another person in people's homes, sitting at the breakfast table with them at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning," says Leonard Downie, managing editor of the Washington Post. "There are things they will accept from TV and the movies (that) . . . they won't accept from a newspaper."
Why are some people so offended by obscene language?
Many people see it as "a penetration, a violation of their private sphere, their psychological and spiritual being," says Leonard Michaels, a novelist who is also co-editor of the study "The State of the Language."
Christopher Ricks, Michaels' co-editor, says the real problem is the lack of "neutral" words for most sexual and scatological functions.
"All the words for sex and scatology are either chill and clinical, like 'sexual intercourse' or 'defecation,' or they're crude and vulgar," Ricks says.
Moreover, Ricks says, "it's often not the language itself but the act it reminds one of that gives offense."
Although many in today's generation tend to use four-letter words more openly, the use of such language in newspapers is not necessarily generational. Shelby Coffey, the editor of The Times, is 44, for example, but he is generally much more reluctant to permit the publication of obscenities in The Times than was William F. Thomas, his predecessor, who retired in 1989, six months before his 65th birthday.
Two years ago, Jack Miles, book editor of The Times, says Coffey ordered that two obscene words be excised from a review of a book of letters by novelist James Jones. One was a four-letter vulgarism for defecation; the other was "laid" as in "getting laid."
Coffey says both words "easily could have been written around." But Willie Morris, the author of the review, said that cutting the words would violate both his principles and the spirit of Jones' work. He refused. The review was not published.
Last month, in examining material excerpted from the Christopher Commission report showing members of the Los Angeles Police Department making racist and sexist remarks, Coffey excised several obscene words, including one that he had the paper characterize as "a four-letter vulgarism for vagina."
The woman who wrote the story and several women editors said the actual word should be used because it is so offensive to women that by not using it, The Times would fail to accurately portray the severity of the officers' demeaning attitudes toward women. Coffey eliminated the word anyway, arguing that it appeared only once in the transcripts and was thus not demonstrably part of "pattern and practice" in the Police Department and also that the word is "sexist and derogatory."
Coffey did agree, however, that the story could quote the word "tits" from the LAPD transmissions. The story also contained several other derogatory, although not obscene references to women, and Coffey said he thought the cumulative effect of the language The Times used made the necessary point about the officers' behavior.
Are there circumstances under which Coffey would permit the publication of obscenities?
If obscene language is "in one way or another deemed essential to the nature of a particular story," The Times would publish it, he says.