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Censor this column!!!

May 1st, 2008

Let’s revisit the American Male, Age 10 (with apologies to Susan Orlean). He loves violent movies like “300” and “I am Legend.” Unsurprisingly, he knows all of the major swear words, but his insult of choice is “emo,” to mean a combination of “gay,” “freak” and “goth.” He’ll play Madden video games for hours. His primary source of news and information is SportsCenter. As he gets older, he’ll have even less use for a newspaper than those that came before him.

No one knows when (or if) newspapers will go the way of the Beta Max, but if it happens, our 10-year-old won’t care.

Everything is going digital. As Eric Alterman wrote in The New Yorker last month, advertising revenue isn’t following my generation—Americans in their 20s—online. With craigslist, who needs classifieds? Who needs paid subscriptions? The economy, the housing market, mas-sive newspaper consolidations and buyouts—all of which point to the newspaper’s dying days.

Editors, publishers and advertisers know all of this. Some are trying new ideas and approaches; others are probably looking into second careers.

(To be clear, I have a philosophical difference with many newspaper editors. I came into this pro-fession sideways, as an editorial cartoonist. Editorial cartoonists, including myself, believe a good newspaper should provoke, enrage, engage and offend its readers. Editors don’t want to upset what few readers we have left… funny how the cartoonist is often the first to go). 

A few weeks ago I interviewed an endearing local rapper called Hunit Grand. He’s riding the local success of a YouTube.com clip, “Hello Woodbridge,” and is preparing to record his debut album with Epic Records’ Yung Berg.

It was one of my favorite interviews. He gave me some great quotes, especially about his life recording in Los Angeles, recounting “…where we partied, who we [expletive]…” That’s a great quote, but when I read it in the paper, I had absolutely no idea what “[expletive]” meant.

“Family newspapers” have covered kiddie porn, prostitution, murder, arson, rape and other terrible things people do—but a rapper can’t express himself about the ladies he bedded?

It’s not just on a local, community level. Self-censorship in the name of “not offending readers” will be just one more nail in our coffin as people flock to the less-reliable-yet-infinitely-more-interesting blogosphere.

Recent national stories include a New York governor and a prostitute, a United States Senator soliciting gay sex in a restroom and a Virginia Tech student who murdered 32 people.

Guess which story had the most play-by-play detail? I know everything Seung-Hui Cho did in Blacksburg, but I still don’t know if Larry Craig “allegedly” pitches or catches. That might not be as newsworthy, but as a reader, it’s a question I have about the psyche of a man who built a career on gay bashing.

(More absurdity: The Washington Post, which delivered gruesome, Pulitzer winning coverage of Virginia Tech, has apparently banned the use of the letter “F” when it stands for [ex-pletive], if you even know what [expletive] means).

Here’s an excerpt from television writer Lisa de Moraes last month:

“On the April 10 episode of ’30 Rock,’ the staff of the late-night show ‘TGS’ has become obsessed with a new reality hit called ‘MIL[letter that’s been deemed too naughty for The Washington Post when it follows M, I and L] Is-land.’

“For the uninitiated: MIL[WaPo Scarlet Letter] stands for Mothers I’d Like to [have sex with].”)

This isn’t just The Potomac News or the Washington Post; this is American culture, which has typically embraced violence and censored the messy details of sex (notable exception: The Starr Report).

Blogger Daniel Radosh has written extensively about self-censorship in the media at Radosh.net, which TIME Magazine named one of the top 25 blogs on the Internet (full disclosure: I was best man at Radosh’s brother’s wedding last summer).

“…Newspapers that value polite language over reporting facts are committing a journalistic sin,” Radosh blogged last August. “I’m not saying newspaper writers should employ swear words themselves, or go out of their way to find quotes that contain them, but if a subject’s words are noteworthy enough to be reported than it is the basic responsibility of the newspaper to report the actual words. Withholding important information to protect the delicate sensibilities of a hypothetical reader is a violation of the basic principles of journalism.”

I’d take it one step further. A good journalist can and should employ “swear” words if it serves the story or its characters.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in some bizarre Harry Potter world where everything with the potential to offend is “The Word That Must Not Be Named” or “You Know What.” (Even J.K. Rowling served up a nice [different expletive] in the final Potter. Why? It served the story.)

The New York Times offers the counter-argument:

“…We don’t want to offend any of those readers gratuitously, and we don’t want the tone of our writing to echo everything you might hear in a locker room, a bar fight or, for that matter, on late-night TV,” writes New York Times deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett, answering readers’ questions last October.  No disrespect to Corbett (or, since it’s the Times, “Mr. Corbett” on second reference), but if I’m in a locker room, in a bar or trying to recreate the life of a rapper in Los Angeles, I’d want the writing to reflect that.

No wonder young people don’t read newspapers anymore. We look stupid trying to shield readers from everyday language. We’re positively antique.

Since the kids—including Orlean’s American Male, Age 10—aren’t reading, “family newspaper” is really code for “geezer.” We don’t want to upset our older, sensitive readers (who probably know what [expletive] means).

But when they’re gone, so are we.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeis-erike@potomacnews.com.

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