No duh.

I’ve been a fan of Dan Savage’s for some time now — he writes the only sex column worth reading, because he makes it dirty and fun, not earnest and sincere — but even if I wasn’t, the things he says about newspapers would make me one. In this Mediabistro Q-and-A, he discusses all things Savage, including his belief that “family newspaper” is an “albatross” that publishers have hung around their own necks.

I heartily agree, and not because I’m dying to get the f-word into the newspaper, either. As someone who had another f-word — “funk” — stricken from a fashion story back when I was a rookie (the editor thought it sounded too much like you-know-what), I’ve never understood the impulse to never offend, for any reason.

It can get utterly baroque at times. My former editor in Fort Wayne once took a call from a querulous old lady fretting over the phrase “and that’s the straight poop,” which had appeared in his column the week before. He was so impressed by her sensitivity he waved his royal scepter and instituted the infamous hell/damn rule, which led to those PG no-no words being represented by h— and d—, and any stronger than that having to be approved on a case-by-case basis. You can guess the fearless leadership that exists at the middle management level, and so our paper sometimes read like something out of the 1950s, only less interesting. The day an editor questioned the word “snot” in a column of mine (the dictionary notes it as “vulgar”), I knew it was time to get out. (I’m glad he didn’t dash it out, for obvious reasons.)

And he was really, really proud of that rule. He thought it was a victory for readers. For some, it was. I have no problem with the argument that not every word belongs in every publication, and the one that lands on your doorstep every day should be closer to a G rating than an R. I just think dashing the words out is stupid; does anyone look at h— and not think “hell”? Is any child over the age of 5 fooled by this? Take it all the way out, if you must, but dashes are like putting tape over the nipples of a stripper. Please.

I’d much rather work for someone with the common sense of Savage, who observed:

What did you think about the Doonesbury masturbation blowup? Where’d you stand on that? I assume something similar has happened to you.

Daily newspapers wonder why adults don’t read them. The “family newspaper” albatross that daily newspapers have hung around their necks is going to kill them. The newspaper is for adults, and any 11-year-old who’s reading Doonesbury is mature enough to see the word masturbation in that context and then not masturbate on a bus in front of a nun. And daily newspapers just can’t let that go. And that there are 90-year-old readers who are going to cancel their subscriptions is good. They dropped that Doonesbury in Seattle. They didn’t run that comment, about masturbation and prostate cancer. It wasn’t appropriate, they said; it’s in a comics page that a lot of people read with their children. Well, you know, maybe they should skip Doonesbury that week.

He touches on another theme — the 90-year-old reader. It’s true that newspaper readers, as a group, are aging rapidly. It’s also true that 90-year-olds are frequently more sensitive to words like “masturbation” than someone half that age. But the day you start editing for the most easily offended in your audience is the day your publication starts to die. Plus, guess what? Ninety-year-old readers are not the ones you build your future plans on.

P.S. There are exceptions. Carolyn, in Palm Beach, once told me her paper edits for the easily offended, too, a function of their elderly readership. All sexual activity, from a hand on a bottom to forcible rape, is “sex,” which makes it difficult to parse President Clinton’s thoughts on adultery with total candor. However, in Palm Beach, the unvarnished source material of daily life — presidential election recounts, Rush Limbaugh’s pill problems, bishops with an eye for the altar boys — makes their paper a must-read, I’m sure.

Posted at 9:37 am in Uncategorized |

5 responses to “No duh.”

  1. alex said on October 17, 2003 at 12:17 pm

    When I see what the current younger generation is viewing on television�along with the way advertisers now pander with a flippant raunchiness unimaginable just a few short years ago�I have the feeling that even the f-word is fast going the way of the h-word and the d-word and the a-word. No one but the biggest bluenose will think twice about it appearing in print or on the air.

    The Chicago Reader, one of the last bastions of literary journalism, seldom shies from conjuring images that wouldn’t be allowed to fly in most papers. One that had me laughing one time was a quote from my alderman, Helen Shiller, regarding a political rival’s tactics during a campaign. “[That guy] must really have a hard-on for me.”

    At an advertising and marketing seminar I covered for a trade journal a few years back, a representative for Kimberley Clark said their research was showing that the new generation prefers straight talk about tampons and toilet paper, which goes entirely against the grain of what I’d been taught: never conjure an unpleasant image in the consumer’s mind. In the ad biz, this meant that such things as toilet paper could only be referred to as “bath tissue,” lest someone associate the product with shit. Tampons could only be referred to as “feminine protection.” Diapers could only be shown absorbing blue liquid, lest it make someone think of pee. These prudish conventions are giving way to more frank, even clever imagery. Consider the toilet paper ad on network TV with the cartoon bears in the woods.

    If dying media like newspapers and network television want to quit losing out to other media, they should quit trying to be so goddamn inoffensive in a world that doesn’t really give a flying fuck about dirty words anymore.

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  2. Nance said on October 17, 2003 at 12:41 pm

    Well said. One reason I’m of two minds about this sort of thing is, you loosen the standards for artists, who are followed by crap-peddlers. Allowing “NYPD Blue” characters to say “asshole” brought greater authenticity to the show, but it was followed by “Nip/Tuck,” where they say “shit” in service of, well, shit.

    But you’re right — young people have no problems with obscenity, or far fewer problems than their grandparents do. I sat at a study group the other day while one of the participants, a lovely, seemingly well-brought-up girl of 21 or so, said, “So I’m like, ‘Dude, stop jumping on my nuts, OK? I need this class!'”

    I worry, though, that as dirty words become commonplace, the ability to swear creatively is being lost. And you can take that motherfucker to the bank.

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  3. Jennifer said on October 17, 2003 at 2:54 pm

    Much as I agree that the 90-year-old perhaps shouldn’t be catered to quite so much, the aged ones are the guaranteed readers, at least until they die. Unfortunately, there’s not so many of the younger folks taking up their slack. How many people under 18 do you know that read a newspaper voluntarily, beyond the Sunday comics? Hell, I was the only one I knew of that read it at that age. Most kids aren’t going to sit down with the paper and go “Daddy, what’s masturbation?”

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  4. alex said on October 17, 2003 at 8:13 pm

    The perfervid fascination of small children with butts, poop and farts is nothing new. But the good cheer it brings young mothers these days�buyers of such popular children’s reading as Captain Underpants�is another great indicator of the sea change in sensibilities.

    My sister-in-law, mother of an infant girl, recently said she can’t see herself spazzing out like a blue-haired schoolmarm over the usual roster of excretions and body parts we were forbidden to contemplate as youngsters. She also believes a more liberal attitude toward potty talk will actually go a long way toward cutting down on the tiresomeness of it all. Remember, nine-tenths of the thrill is in getting a rise out of authority figures, whose over-the-top indignation back in the day might have better befit, say, crack whoring.

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  5. ashley said on October 17, 2003 at 11:28 pm

    Well, the f word is gone wif da wind. Now, if you say the N word, you will lose your job. My question is, what the hell do I call my old Richard Pryor albums?

    In my graduate linguistics class, we discussed how “fuck” is the only word in English (and we thought perhaps any language) that can be used as any part of speech. Really. I almost bought a t-shirt on Bourbon Street that said “fuck you, you fucking fuck”.

    From what I have read, the NBC censors gave Homicide more leeway than any series ever up to that point. Of course, the only things that other shows really copied was the shaky handhelds and the coarse language. God forbid they notice the writing, acting, and lack of car chases and shootouts.

    There is still a magic word or 2. Nigger and cunt will still stop conversations in their tracks. Period.

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