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Journalists try to keep it clean in print, on air

Let the reader beware: This column intends to wallow in the salacious and the profane.

But not terribly explicitly.

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As far as media-watchers were concerned, the tone for the year was set months ago by the reaction to Janet Jackson's breast-baring performance during the Super Bowl halftime show on CBS. As complaints poured in, and politicians staged hearings, network officials instituted a delay on nearly every live program to bleep out possibly offending material.

The Federal Communications Commission found U2's Bono had been indecent in shouting a profane term in excitement at a televised awards ceremony. In Southern California, a commentator for a public-radio station was fired when she used a vulgar word for a sexual act she said she would perform with her husband - although she had assumed the word would be bleeped out by producers.

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Other media outlets, from rival networks to newspapers to magazines, took note of the seeming shift in cultural sensibilities.

Or maybe not.

The media still appear perfectly willing to draw upon sexually charged and profane material - to sell publications, draw viewers and, even when appropriate, inform citizens. For news executives, those decisions get debated and made almost daily. And the process can tie them in knots of self-contradiction as they invoke explicit material without specifically quoting it.

Two weeks ago, when CBS News ran audiotape of conversations between Enron Corp. traders boasting of bilking Californians out of billions of dollars and causing rolling blackouts there in 2000 and 2001, the edgiest words were purged.

Here's one brief example:

Man's voice: They should just bring back [censored] horses and carriages, [censored] lamps, [censored] kerosene lamps.

The network also displayed captions of the full dialogue, with the worst words represented by the first letter of each followed by asterisks, says Lyne Pitts, senior broadcast producer for the CBS Evening News.

Such journalistic gymnastics often draw more attention to the obscenities involved. But they do allow networks and newspapers to say they have not reproduced taboo language.

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"People count the letters and figure out what the words are," Pitts says. "That's what I do. There is just as much impact as with the full words."

In the wake of the Jackson and Bono backlash, "there's a heightened sensitivity," Pitts says. "We have the opportunity, I won't say to censor, but certainly to control what we do in our broadcasts."

On the print front, the most recent issue of New York magazine has two covers for a special summer 2004 edition. One, featuring a picture of a shirtless Ethan Hawke from the shoulders up, was on sale at newsstands. The other, headlined "A No-Sweat Summer," sent to subscribers, features a young, slender female model whom discerning readers can tell is extremely fit, in no small part because she was photographed wearing nothing as she sauntered along Park Avenue in mid-town Manhattan.

Two lines little thicker than the edge of a nickel covered parts of her anatomy that might offend or thrill. But the woman's pose was not overtly erotic, and she was not a classic pneumatic cover model.

New York magazine's editor, Adam Moss, says he serves a readership that considers itself more urbane and sophisticated that the broader viewership of a national television network. "I don't know if I were editing a Cincinnati magazine [that] I would have made the same [choice]," Moss says. "This, to us, seemed just a beautiful image, a fantasized image of New York, and one that was witty."

As a family newspaper rather than a glossy urbanite magazine, The Sun tends to be a bit more delicate about such things, so you won't see a reproduction of that cover photograph in these pages.

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The Washington Post, also a self-styled family newspaper, exercised a different kind of news judgment last week, deciding that specific reporting was necessary on a prickly exchange between Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Vice President Dick Cheney on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Leahy teased Cheney about his discomfort around the Senate's Democrats. Cheney retorted angrily, Leahy responded snappily, and suddenly Cheney delivered a vulgar imperative that involved a term commonly called the "F-word."

The Post stood alone in quoting the vice president in full, choosing to allow readers to decide whether such language was appropriate for a senior elected official. "Readers need to judge for themselves what the word is," Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. was quoted by his newspaper as saying, "because we don't play games at The Washington Post and use dashes."

During the 2000 presidential campaign, the Post, The Sun and several major television networks were among those media outlets that reproduced a vulgarity for a bodily orifice that President Bush used in describing a New York Times reporter. But the Post, in referring back to that episode during last week's reporting on Cheney, did not repeat that lesser obscenity.

"The media, by being squeamish, is letting Cheney off the hook," says Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin. "I'm not advocating that a family newspaper should use foul language," he says. "We do, however, have ridiculous qualifications."

Littwin should know. In a recent column, he quoted a passage from The Canterbury Tales containing the medieval precursor of an extremely nasty word used to insult women as he mocked the president of Colorado University, who had defended the use of that word in a deposition.

You can imagine the Chaucerian conversations that ensued around water coolers in Denver that morning.

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In the early days of the Watergate scandal, when the Post's Carl Bernstein asked John Mitchell about illegal campaign contributions he had overseen while attorney general, Mitchell angrily responded: "All that crap, it's all been denied. If you print that, Katie Graham will get her [word omitted] caught in a wringer." Bradlee permitted most of the quote about the late publisher to be published - but insisted that Bernstein delete the specific reference to the body part involved.

Thirty years later, even after the Janet Jackson flap, journalists are struggling with the same kinds of decisions.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.


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