Warning: this article makes frequent use of words usually considered unfit to appear in a family newspaper. That’s because this article is about the incidence of such words in a family newspaper — specifically, The Seattle Times.
On March 3, the Times’ Sunday magazine, Pacific Northwest, published a profile of Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame. Penned by long-time music writer Paul de Barros, the article was entertaining and nicely observed, as readers of de Barros (and of Pacific Northwest features, generally) have come to expect, although it was a bit late to the party.
Brownstein and/or IFC, the cable channel where Portlandia is a breakout hit, have a good publicist. Perhaps several. When the sketch comedy series debuted its second season a few months ago, Brownstein was thoroughly overexposed by adoring, almost simultaneous profiles in The New York Times and The New Yorker. I know this because I read every word. Brownstein — and I say this with the highest respect for her riot-grrrl musicianship and obvious intelligence — is about the cutest cult celebrity to come along since Janeane Garofalo, plus not as angry, you know what I mean?
But I digress. Reading the Seattle Times profile, I was brought up short by the beginning of a quote from her: “And just so you don’t think I’m a total asshole…” Hmmm. You don’t see that word every day coming from what used to be called Fairview Fanny. (A new nickname is in order now that the Times has moved around the corner onto Denny Way, but inventing one is hardly worth the bother given the diminished stature and impact of newspapers in general.)
Or have I just never noticed before? Has the paper eased its standards regarding the use of profanity? Now that no one under the age of 50 pays for news, has the whole concept of a “family newspaper,” decorous lest it deform young minds, become obsolete? On the other hand, what about those of us over 50, whose sensibilities were formed in a more strait-laced era? Has the Times no regard for its dwindling, increasingly doddering band of non-freeloading readers and our antiquated notions of decency?
(By this stage in any article that verges on media criticism, the writer must fully disclose any associations with the people or institutions under discussion. So, here goes. My daughter was friendly with the oldest daughter of Kathy Andrisevic, editor of Pacific Northwest, when they went to the same day care 25 years ago. Also in stunning proof of my decrepitude, I’ve been acquainted with Paul de Barros for more than 30 years since he and I wrote for the original incarnation of Seattle Weekly, whose writers and editors did not insert the word “shit” or “ass” into every other sentence as the current staff does now.)
A principal benefit of the Internet is that it lets you avoid doing something worthwhile and instead indulge idle curiosity. To track whether the Times is working blue, I recently typed various swear words into the search box on its website. (Now I’m a little worried that Google was tracking me, and I’ll be seeing some disturbing online ads whenever I browse.)
It turns out there is a trend toward the use of certain impolite words in the Times, although others apparently are still taboo. “Asshole,” singular or plural, has popped up 13 times since the Times began its digital archive in 1990. A narrow majority, seven of these instances including the Brownstein quote, have appeared just since 2010. This may be the Times simply holding up a mirror to a coarsening culture. Notably, each instance of “asshole” appeared in a direct quote or a title. All four uses of the word in 2010 were in bestseller lists that included a book by Tucker Max, Assholes Finish First.
But it seems likely that editors also have eased up on bowdlerizing some quotes and perhaps other references. The Times has searchable archives of scanned editions of the paper prior to 1990 all the way back to 1900, although the search results are not as reliable as with the digital library. In those 90 years, it appears that “asshole” was used in the Times only twice. Both uses were in 1974 in quotes from Richard Nixon as recorded on the White House tapes. Understandably, the editors decided to publish some of the flavor of Nixon’s diction, as in the president’s pithy analysis of U.S.-Canada relations: “That asshole Trudeau is something else.” But these uses of “asshole” stand alone prior to 1991, which would seem to indicate that their publication was an extraordinary exception to the paper’s prim standards, which have relaxed since.
Compare, for example, the paper’s occasional use of “asshole” today with its reaction to The Last American Virgin, a movie comedy released in 1982. To protect its readers, the Times changed the title in ads to “The Last American Nice Girls.” (Odd, partly because the virgin in the movie was a boy.) Advertising standards are different from news standards, but certainly times have changed and so has the Times.
How does it handle vulgarities such as George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV? To discuss them without sounding like Richard Nixon, I’ll give them numerical identifiers (these are the same as "numbers," for those of you outside academe): 1. “shit” 2. “piss” 3. “fuck” 4. “cunt” 5. “cocksucker” 6. “motherfucker” 7. "tits.”
And the winner for Best Picture is… Words 5 and 6 do not turn up in the Seattle Times digital archive or the earlier, scanned archive. About the other words, the pre-digital record is murky, as searches for short words in the scanned archive bring up many erroneous hits involving words like “shut” and “pass.” It’s also hard to tell whether word 7 is gaining acceptance in the digital era, as it has appeared hundreds of times in non-mammary contexts such as “tit-for-tat,” a favorite trope in coverage of the Middle East.
Thankfully and despite the cultural influence of Rush Limbaugh, word 4 is apparently still verboten. It has appeared only once since 1990 and only in a typo where the word “cut” obviously was intended. Word 3 has penetrated, so to speak, only once and only online, in a blog post about the music lineup for the 2010 Capitol Hill Block Party, which included a band by the name of Holy [Word 3].
Aside from “asshole,” which we already over-discussed, evidence of loosening standards at the Times comes primarily from the incidence of two other no-no’s. Insofar as the paper uses them, I will too: “shit” and “piss.” The former has appeared 21 times since 1990, more than half since 2006 and invariably in quotes. The latter word, which has appeared 163 times in the digital era, exploded in 2010 after Seattle police officer Shandy Cobane was videotaped threatening a man lying on a concrete sidewalk. The Times took a nuanced approach in quoting Cobane precisely thus: “I’m going to beat the [expletive] Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?”
Evidently, Times editors will go only so far to give readers the unvarnished truth. They hold the line against Anglo-Saxon terms for sexual acts, but have become more tolerant of such terms for some body parts and bodily functions. In the decade before the Cobane altercation, the Times used “piss” twice as often as it did in the 1990s.
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