Bleeping Out Words

On July 29 All Things Considered ran a fascinating interview with Jeremy Renner, star of a new movie, The Hurt Locker, about American soldiers who defuse bombs in Iraq.

To set the stage, host Madeline Brand, used a 30-second clip from the movie.

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Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James) Right here is a perfect vantage point outside the blast radius to sit back and watch us clean up their mess.

Unidentified Man #1: You want to go out there?

Mr. RENNER: (As James) Yes, I do.

Unidentified Man #1: I could stand to get in a little trouble.

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (As Sergeant JT Sanborn) No, man, this is (BEEP). You got three infantry platoons behind you whose job it is to go Haji-hunting. That ain't our (BEEP) job.

Mr. RENNER: (As James) You don't say no to me, Sanborn. I say no to you, okay? You know there are guys watching us right now. They're laughing at this, okay, and I'm not okay with that. Now, turn off your goddamn torch because we're going."

David Carr of Zionsville, IN wondered why NPR bleeped out two words but not "goddamn," which he found offensive.

"Whatever it bleeped out could not possibly be as bad as what it left unbleeped," wrote Carr. "The uncensored language is a violation of the 10 Commandments and HIGHLY offensive to many Christians. I am astonished at the insensitivity of NPR. If I want to listen to Howard Stern, I know how to turn the dial."

It was easy for NPR editors to bleep out the other two well-known swear words that never make it on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines make it crystal clear. The guidelines define profanity as "language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance."

Using "god damn it," for example, is not "legally profane" according to the FCC.

But taking the Lord's name in vain — although not all see it that way — is more problematic for all mainstream media.

"God Damn is more complicated, especially because of the juxtaposition here to the other bleeped words," said Chris Turpin, ATC's executive producer. "Usually we don't bleep God Damn —there is no legal reason to do so — although we realize there are some in the audience who find this exceedingly offensive."

What NPR did in this case was to send out a warning to its public radio member stations alerting them to potentially offensive language. "So they can make a decision about how they want to handle it based on their prevailing community standards," said Turpin.

It turns out that NPR rarely airs those words god and damn together. A search showed 52 references in transcripts of the phrase "god damn" all the way back to 1990. When there's no space between the two words (as in goddamn), there were 163 references since 1990.

But it did make me wonder how other news organizations handle these words.

When I asked CBS' standards & practices editor, I got back a succinct email: "No gd on cbs," wrote Linda Mason.

"As a general rule, we would not permit 'GD' to be used on our air," wrote NBC's David McCormick, who is the network's standards & practices editor. "We would bleep one or the other....usually the first word."

The Washington Post used the words "goddam" only twice in recent years. Post guidelines urge great caution in dealing with words or material that is profane or obscene, urging that it not be published except in cases where it's essential (such as quoting from a court case on obscenity).

The New York Times has used the words 9 times in the past year — five were a direct quote from Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright's famous speech.

ThomsonReuters' policy makes sense to me:

Obscenities

Use them only if they are in direct quotes and if the story would be seriously weakened by their omission. Obscenities, if retained, must not be euphemized or emasculated by the use of dots. In general we should not quote mindless obscenities from the person in the street or, say, an athlete or soldier but should consider using them if people prominent in public life use them in a context that gives their remarks great emphasis or throws in question their fitness to hold office.

In the case of The Hurt Locker, it was gratuitous to keep in the swear words. It all could have been avoided by using a different clip from the movie. Out of a two-hour movie, there had to be something else so that NPR didn't have to bleep it or offend.

Turpin said that studios usually offer a limited range of video, "most of which only work when you see the video. This was the option that worked on the radio and gave a sense of the movie."

That said, why needlessly offend listeners? Bleeping out "goddamn" would have been so easy and lost nothing.

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