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Potty Talk and The NY Times

25 Oct

**Note: This is a sample blog post for my IB Lang & Lit students.**

As members of the human race in 2016, we hear “bad words” all the time. To varying degrees, people swear on TV, in the movies, and in their daily lives. One place, however, that we do not see as much potty talk is in the mainstream news media. This is especially true for print news, probably because there’s something even more shocking about seeing taboo language staring out from the page, as if it’s more real or permanent, simply because it is in writing. In his blog post “Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times,” Blake Eskin discusses his thoughts about how The New York Times handles swearing in their quotes. I’m not gonna lie; I found this fascinating!

My Own Reactions

Let’s rewind a bit here. When the news about Donald Trump’s now-infamous “p***y” video hit, people were obviously shocked. I can only speak for myself, but I definitely remember reading the article in the car and my friends asking me what was wrong when I audibly gasped.

Was I shocked about Mr. Trump’s behavior? To be honest, not really. What shocked me most was the fact that the newspaper legit printed the “F” word and the “P” word  (both of which were uncensored) in an actual news article. This was something I really don’t remember ever seeing before in my life.

Is This a Thing Now?

I was definitely curious to know more about whether or not the paper always prints swears in their entirety if they are part of actual quotes. Or was this a first because of how shocking it would be to hear/read those words from a US Presidential candidate? Thankfully, Eskin starts to answer some of my questions.

Eskin compared Trump’s quotes to those of Rakeyia Scott, who was quoted when talking about her husband after his deadly confrontation with Charlotte police. According to Eskin’s research, The New York Times originally posted quotes from Scott with their full expletives (mostly the “F” word) written out (“He better not be f*****g dead”). (Author’s note: I censored the “F” word here because I have a high school audience. The original article had the word printed in its entirety.)

However, not soon after the original publication of the article, The Times edited the article and censored the quotes (“He better not be [expletive] dead”). I’m guessing maybe they got some letters?

So, What’s the Difference?

So really, what is it about Scott’s expression of grief that is actually worse than Trump’s lewd use of the same word? Why did she get censored but not Trump?

As Eskin noted, these were individual editorial decisions in which the editors decided if they could and/or should keep the quotes in tact, warts and all. And they aren’t always consistent; that much is obvious. But why? Why is it ok for Trump to drop the F-bomb when talking about his failed attempt at seducing a married woman, but it’s not ok for a grieving wife to use the same word as a reaction to her anger and grief?

People, they’re messing with our minds!

Steven Pinker says that one reason people swear is to force our audience to think upsetting thoughts. When Trump says things like “I did try and f**k her” and “Grab them by the p***y,” he’s being crass. More than crass, actually. He’s being lewd and talking about women with not even one ounce of respect. And The Times wants to capture the full weight of that; they want to show just how creepy he is. It’s no secret that The Times endorses Hillary Clinton, so why should they bother protecting Trump by making his comments seem any less offensive than they are? Not only did the editors know that printing such shocking language would capture the attention of a sensationalism-craving audience, but they also get to portray the Republican candidate as a mysogynist pig, thus continuing to shape our political beliefs about the man. By being confronted with the actual, uncensored language that he used, we are also forced to let our minds run wild about what he may or may not have actually done. Trump might say “It’s just words, folks,” but we all know that words matter.

With Rakeyia Scott, it’s different. She is a black woman who lost her husband in a police shooting. By bleeping out the curse words that Scott used, the paper softens her language and takes away from the emotion she was feeling. If we go back to Pinker’s ideas, we can argue that just as being faced with harsh language makes us think harsh thoughts, it’s also true that being protected from strong words also protects us from the ideas or emotions those words convey.

Is The New York Times trying to protect its sensitive audience? Or are they just trying to be respectful of Scott’s heartbreak? Well, I’m not on the editorial board, so I really can’t say. But I do have to wonder if these seemingly small decisions are made as a way to shape our understanding of the world around us. As a wise (spider)man once said, with great power comes great responsibility, and I just hope it’s a responsibility that we all take very seriously indeed.

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