Words Get in the Way

If the news is offensive, how does local media report it? Very carefully.

Once upon a time, George Carlin was able to say with little fear of contradiction that his famous seven dirty words -- shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits -- couldn't be heard on radio or television.

But that was a long time ago, and today there's little doubt media language standards are becoming more liberal each passing year. Nowadays, cable TV routinely broadcasts comics who spew more profanity than Carlin ever thought of using; Dennis Miller, whose HBO show is littered with expletives, is co-hosting Monday Night Football, which is about as mainstream as popular culture gets -- and while he's thus far resisted dropping any "f-bombs," as he calls them, a breathless nation hasn't given up hope. And although Howard Stern is prevented by the FCC from getting as dirty as he'd probably like during the morning drive, his frequent repetitions of "f-you" get his points across pretty well.

That leaves daily newspapers and TV news broadcasts as some of the last places more or less holding the lingo line -- but behind-the-scenes debates take place regularly over where that line is drawn and if it should be moved. This month alone, decision-makers at the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post had to choose whether or not to print a racist remark -- "nigger" -- allegedly spoken by troubled Denver Bronco Bill Romanowski, and the powers that are at Channel 4 needed to weigh the efficacy of airing a vulgarity -- "bullshit" -- tucked into a sound bite about the Russian mafia. In the end, the newspapers got conservative despite legitimate journalistic reasons for going the other direction, while the TV station took a chance, and apparently wound up offending no one.

Admittedly, "nigger" -- which an anonymous former NFL player, widely reported to be former Bronco Martin Harrison, told Sports Illustrated Romanowski had used in explaining why he needed the diet drug he's been charged with obtaining illegally -- may be the single most controversial expression left in our lexicon. Yet even during the civil-rights period, some African-American activists were using it to describe themselves under the theory that by changing its context they were sapping it of its power to harm. Comedian Dick Gregory called his '60s-era autobiography Nigger, juxtaposing the title on the cover with a note reminding his mother that every time people said that word they were advertising his book. More recently, rappers have turned "nigga" into a badge of honor: It's a reasonable guess that attendees of the Up in Smoke tour ("The Need for Weed," August 24) heard it voiced well over a hundred times.

The Denver dailies have been more sparing with the word, but they've definitely employed it in the past. The Post included it in several 1999 news stories about Columbine -- numerous witnesses heard it mouthed by killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- and within the past several months, it's appeared in a theater review of To Kill a Mockingbird and in quotes stuffed into columns by Al Knight and Ken Hamblin (the Hamblin piece was published August 13, just two days before the Romanowski allegations broke). Likewise, the News put it into Columbine stories, and in a 1997 column headlined "Racism's Ugly Head: Kids Hurl the Darnedest Epithets," Bill Johnson led with, "Nigger. Let's put it on the table. I won't insult you with the first letter and a long dash."

Were the Post and the News afraid that Broncos fans, who've rallied around Romanowski in a predictable but still disturbing fashion, would be insulted if something other than that first letter made its way into articles? Is that why both have settled on "N-word," which isn't far removed from the way kids talk to their parents when trying to get siblings in trouble ("Billy said the S-word, Mom!")? Perhaps -- but Barry Forbis, the News's sports editor, doesn't put it quite that way. He says the fact that the original Sports Illustrated piece quoted its source as saying "'n' word," not "nigger," meant that the News could and should do likewise. According to Forbis, "If he had actually said the word, then we would have had a decision to make."

By contrast, Kevin Dale, the Post's sports editor, concedes that "there's been significant discussion about almost every story we've written about Romanowski," with some staffers arguing that "the story is about the word, so we should run the word." But others advised caution because Romanowski denied having said such a thing. In the final analysis, Dale says, "I don't think there was any confusion about what the word was among readers, and since we could make the story clear without having to put that word in front of people, that's the path we took."

Channel 4 chose the same road in regard to Romanowski, avoiding "nigger" in favor of "N-word" or "racial slur." But it cut a new trail for a mid-August Shaun Boyd package based on the release of Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, by author Richard Friedman. The book, which depicts Russian crime figures in the U.S. as incredibly ruthless, includes sections about alleged activity in Glendale -- and in seeking reactions from the many Russian-Americans living in the area, Boyd interviewed Sergey Shakhmayev, editor of the locally published newspaper Slovo (Russian for "The Word"). Shakhmayev didn't pussyfoot around when asked his opinion of Friedman's assertions; he called them "bullshit."

Most TV types probably would have edited out that descriptive faster than you can say "Joe Lieberman." However, following what Channel 4 news director Angie Kucharski calls, in a Dale-like phrase, "significant discussions about the content of the story and the appropriateness of the word," it was left in -- and neither Kucharski nor Boyd has any regrets. Kucharski feels the conclusion was justified by "the late hour of the broadcast" (the report only appeared on the 10 p.m. program) and its effectiveness "in conveying the intensity of what the story was about." Boyd echoes that: "This was a story about people who allegedly kill entire families when someone crosses them. It wasn't about a children's parade, and how someone didn't like the food or the clowns."

As for viewers, they failed to rise up in righteous indignation: Kucharski says she didn't receive a single complaint. That especially pleases editor Shakhmayev, who specifically asked Boyd to keep the "bullshit" in. "That is what I meant, and that is why I said it," he declares with overflowing passion. "But everybody wants to be politically correct, so we can't use the words we want to use. We get control in this country like the former Soviet Union. They used to say, 'You cannot say this, you cannot say that,' and that also happens here.

"I saw an article in the Denver Post that said 'the N-word,' which is fantastic, unbelievable," he goes on. "What is this? Why can we not say this word if this is a word someone said? Why not?"

The unkindest sting: As it turned out, I had already heard that Tiger Woods had been stung by a wasp during a tournament last weekend when I saw the August 27 Post headline "Only a Wasp Can Wound Tiger" over a photo of Caucasian golfer Phil Mickelson. But if I hadn't, I can imagine myself musing, "I thought Tiger was beating all the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants..."

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