John McIntyre

Stylebook conservatism

As you may have read, the Associated Press decided this week that its writers are permitted to use husband and wife for same-sex couples, in those jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal.
Should you not have read about it, I commend to your attention a thoughtful op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times by Nathaniel Frank.
It is not surprising that the AP should be squeamish about this. The Associated Press Stylebook took its sweet time to accept Ms. and gay for homosexual. Stylebooks, like those of the Associated Press and The New York Times are not comfortable in the vanguard. Today, more than ever, readers of newspapers are older people, and one must remember that the AP serves many papers out among the ho-hums as well as those in our enlightened East and West Coast urban centers.
Consider the example of the Leader-Call in Laurel, Mississippi, which lost two advertisers and forty subscribers after publishing an article and photo on its front page of two women getting married.
This story, at least, has a happy ending, recounted on Jim Romenesko's media news site. An article about the Leader-Call by a college student led to a wave of support: a new advertiser and a hundred new subscribers. Writing about the uproar, the owner of the paper, Jim Cegielski, said this: "We have stories about child molesters, murders and all kinds of vicious, barbaric acts of evil committed by heinous criminals on our front page and yet we never receive a call from anyone saying 'I don't need my children reading this.' Never. Ever. However, a story about two women exchanging marriage vows and we get swamped with people worried about their children."*
It's not just in flyover country that publications are skittish about offending readers. At Throw Grammar From the Train, Jan Freeman has a post about taboo avoidance at The Wall Street Journal illustrating the ludicrously coy circumlocutions that newspapers will adopt to avoid printing Bad Words.
These measures are often ill-judged. In the case like The Journal's, the coyness is either going to baffle readers or invite them to imagine something worse. And the Associated Press Stylebook's attempt to straddle the pro- and anti-gay marriage divide is probably self-defeating, as Mr. Frank points out: "AP's separate standards shouldn't have pleased opponents of same-sex marriage. By suggesting that marriage is defined however each couple says it is, the stylebook undercut the power of the shared cultural definition of marriage — exactly what conservative opponents of same-sex marriage fear."
Being timorous risks irritating everybody.
*Never having received an answer to my repeated question, I repeat it again: Where are all these children who are being corrupted by reading newspapers? Where are there children reading newspapers at all? And if they are, why is reading the newspaper more corrupting to them than watching cable TV or playing their trashy video games?