The XX Factor

At the NYT, All the News That’s Fit to Print Does Not Include Sexually Harassing Emails 

By censoring “crude” language, who is the Times protecting?

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

This weekend, the New York Times reported on the case of Colin McGinn, a prominent University of Miami philosophy professor who resigned last year after his research assistant accused him of sexual harassment. “The McGinn case is short on undisputed facts,” wrote Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler. But while it’s true that the university and the graduate student declined to comment for the piece, making it difficult to report out all sides of the accusations, some undisputed facts were available to the Times—the paper just refused to print them under the guise of protecting its readers’ delicate sensibilities.

In the wake of the grad student’s accusation, McGinn publicly posted several (since deleted) defenses of himself on his own blog. The Times had access to the posts, but danced around their substance, saying only that McGinn was “riffing on alternate meanings of a crude term for masturbation.”

What does that mean, exactly? A Chronicle of Higher Education story on the case gets more specific. According to several of the Chronicle’s sources, McGinn once emailed his research assistant to tell her that he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” When the emails were publicized, he took to his blog to argue that his comment was taken out of context. “What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before?” he asked. His answer: “A manicure, of course.” 

McGinn’s “riffing” was actually an infuriating response to evidence that he gets off on fantasies of his student getting him off, and tells her so—in writing. But in the Times, the whole thing is reduced to a “crude term,” which sounds a lot less damning than the real exchange.

That slippery terminology is just the latest instance of the paper’s refusal to repeat vulgar and obscene language in its pages. The Times describes everything from Big Brother’s anti-gay slurs to Rihanna’s lyrics as simply “unpublishable.” When then-presidential candidate George W. Bush called one of the Times’ own reporters a “major league asshole,” the paper reported only that Bush had used “an obscenity.” The paper’s style guide explains that the publication “differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes.”

But refusing to print McGinn’s hand job fantasy doesn’t just reduce the story’s “vividness”­—it undermines the legitimacy of the sexual harassment accusations against the professor. The McGinn case hinges on the context of language; if all the reader knows is that the exchange was “crude,” it’s impossible to determine whether the email constituted harassment or simply Rihanna-style provocation. That’s a problem, because victims of sexual harassment are often told that they’re misreading the context of comments, or that they’re just too sensitive to handle “crude” language typically aired between adults. McGinn is well aware of that dynamic; in an interview with the Times, he argued that “banter referring to sexual matters” isn’t always “sexual banter.” How can a Times reader make that distinction without access to the “banter” in question?

The Times has made a few high-profile exceptions to its language policy over the years. It repeated obscenities in its coverage of the Watergate transcripts and the Starr report, and in 1991, it published uncensored transcripts of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings because “the fate of a Supreme Court appointment rested on whether the Senate would believe a complaint of sexual harassment against the nominee.” The same justification ought to apply here. In response to the Times piece, McGinn posted on his blog: “Read between the lines. Don’t be taken in by spin and exaggeration. Look closely at the language.” McGinn is free to tell the public to “read between the lines” only because the Times won’t print McGinn’s most relevant one: That he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” Leaving that out might help protect the reader from coarse language, but it serves to protect McGinn, too.