The New York Times’ Obscene Profanity Policy

What’s more important to the paper of record, reporting the news or protecting its readers’ delicate sensibilities?

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat.

In its recent account of the turmoil at the New Republic, the New York Times noted that widely loathed chief executive Guy Vidra “told the staff that he intended to break stuff—though he used a profanity.”

How mysterious! The imprecision in Jonathan Mahler and Ravi Somaiya’s story naturally leads to speculation. What stuff did Vidra intend to break? The rules of the New Republic style guide? The legs of Leon Wieseltier? Was he pounding on the conference table à la the Incredible Hulk, thus causing his employees to flee the venerable magazine out of fright? Which profanity did Vidra use, and how? “I intend to fucking break stuff”? “I intend to break stuff, bitches”? There’s no way to know for sure.

Or is there? As former New Republic contributing editor Jonathan Chait explained in New York, Vidra had gathered the staff to inform them that the New Republic was now a tech company. “Let’s break shit,” he said. Aha.

New York wasn’t the only outlet to render Vidra’s remarks accurately. You’ll find “break shit” in Slate, Politico, Vanity Fair, the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, National Review, Newsweek, and the website of the media ethics clearinghouse Poynter. You’ll also find the unexpurgated phrase on the Twitter feed of Ravi Somaiya, one of the writers of the Times story.

The Times wasn’t the only newspaper to refrain from using the full Vidra quote. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote that Vidra “spoke of his desire to ‘break s—,’ a common Silicon Valley catch-all for rapid change” while the Boston Globe cited his “disruption-chic bravado about ‘breaking [expletive].’ ” The Times’ reticence is worth singling out, though. America’s newspaper of record has a habit of relying on euphemism to shield its subscribers’ delicate sensibilities, as if Times readers are all wealthy dowagers prone to fainting spells at the merest suggestion that human beings have sex or excrete waste.

The Times is especially allergic to the word fuck and its various profane permutations. In 2012, Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon wrote about the Times’ habit of writing around the F-word, noting that the play The Motherfucker With the Hat was dubbed “The __________ With the Hat” in a review. The band Fucked Up was also listed as “********” in a 2007 review, which went on to assert that the band’s name “won’t be printed in these pages, not unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake.”

An American vice president apparently doesn’t count as “someone similar.” In 2004, during an argument on the Senate floor, Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to “fuck yourself.” While the Washington Post ran the unexpurgated quote, the Times instead left it to readers’ imaginations, saying that Cheney used “an obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr. Leahy should do.” And in 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, Vice President Joseph Biden—unaware that he was speaking into a live microphone—informed President Obama that the accomplishment was “a big fucking deal.” Though the Times piece about the incident was headlined “At White House, Biden’s Expletive Caught on Open Mike,” the story didn’t actually name the expletive, instead saying that Biden added “an adjective between the big and the deal that begins with ‘f.’ ” My stars!

In 2012, the blog Language Log ran an excerpt from the Times’ internal style guide, which stipulates that the newspaper “virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones.” Not only are reporters expected to avoid profanity, they’re also supposed to avoid the perception that the writer might even be pondering naughty language: “An article should not seem to be saying, ‘Look, I want to use this word, but they won’t let me.’ ”

In an email exchange Wednesday, Times standards editor Philip B. Corbett told me that “we do try to avoid gratuitous use of vulgarities.” And, to be clear, so does Slate. It has long been our policy to avoid gratuitous profanity in our own writing. But as then-editor David Plotz explained in a piece earlier this year, “We’re not New York Times–style prudes: If we’re writing a history of the word fuck, we will certainly use fuck and explore its rainbow of meanings. If someone curses in a quote, we won’t bowdlerize the quote.”

The Times’ policy on vulgarity isn’t absolute. In his email today, Corbett told me that “we are prepared to make exceptions if the use of a vulgarity is newsworthy or essential to the story, or if avoiding it would deprive readers of crucial information. (I don’t think Vidra’s use of a Silicon Valley cliché qualifies on those counts).”

I disagree with Corbett on that last point. In the case of Vidra’s remark, “he intended to break stuff” is substantially different from “let’s break shit.” As my colleague Katy Waldman explained last week, the phrase Vidra used “seems to reflect the Silicon Valley ethos that there are no incremental improvements or careful course corrections. There is only revolution.” This is standard Silicon Valley argot, and the fact that Vidra used those precise words—and not any others—is crucial to understanding who he is and where he comes from. The difference between stuff and shit isn’t a matter of shock value. It’s relevant to the story.

Knowing that a newspaper occasionally omits or writes around relevant information for reasons of decorum can leave a reader wondering about a writer’s motivations. For example, in response to this week’s report on the CIA’s torture regime, the Times had at least two pieces and an interactive that referred to “rectal feeding.” While the tactic was characterized as “medically unnecessary” and a “nightmarish pseudo-medical procedure,” none of the pieces explained what that procedure actually entails. For more information, you could have gone to the Guardian, which explained how rectal feeding was deployed on a detainee named Majid Khan, whose “‘lunch tray’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was ‘pureed and rectally infused.’ ”

So, to be clear: “rectal feeding,” in this case, refers to the act of forcing hummus and pureed raisins up a man’s butt. Why did the Times choose to omit that specific information and instead describe the practice as a “nightmarish pseudo-medical procedure”?

In an email exchange today, Times reporter Mark Mazzetti told me that the decision to omit the more explicit description from his A1 story was driven by space restrictions as opposed to squeamishness. “[I]n retrospect I wish I had given a more detailed explanation in the body of the story about what ‘rectal feeding’ really means,” said Mazzetti, who noted quite reasonably that the Senate report under discussion was 500 pages long, and that there was a lot of other stuff to cover. “Certainly there wouldn’t have been any hesitation at the NYT to include those details in the first-day story,” said Mazzetti, “and of course we are continuing to do many follow-up stories on the Senate report.”

I believe Mazzetti—he’s a great reporter who wrote a great story. But I shouldn’t have to take his word for it. The New York Times is supposed to be the paper of record, not the paper of pointless prudery. Its job should be to report the news, not act in loco parentis for a bunch of adult readers who shouldn’t have to read between the lines.

As Williams wrote in her Salon piece, “if you want to talk about what’s happening, you are obliged to say what is happening. Use the words. Report it accurately.” We’re all adults here. Reading a dirty word in the newspaper won’t scandalize anyone. It’s more of a scandal to maintain antique standards of decorum in a manner that obfuscates the news that you’re trying to report. If you’re not willing to report that someone said “let’s break shit,” then your standards are what’s broken.