Taking The Lord's Name In Vain

Taking the Lord's name in vain does not go over well in some households, particularly in the South.

In a June 23 story about Tom Cruise's new action movie, Knight and Day, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep was discussing the "Superstar" crisis in Hollywood as Cruise ages out of that category.

Tom Cruise, it seems, is no longer ultra-cool.

But that isn't what lit up the phone lines at NPR member station, PBA in Atlanta, GA.

It was a brief clip of Cruise satirically playing a profane movie mogul at the recent MTV movie awards. Grossman/Cruise used God's name to amplify his success, much to the dismay of some listeners.

INSKEEP: And you hear the voice of Tom Cruise, but you almost don't see him. He's made up. He's bald. He's wearing glasses. He's got this paunch, this potbelly. And let's listen to a little bit of Tom Cruise in that character, Les Grossman, at the recent "MTV Movie Awards."

(Soundbite of TV show, "MTV Movie Awards") (Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. TOM CRUISE (As Les Grossman): Movies, awards - I've made them, I've won them. And for 35 years, I've done it better and made more [god****] money than anybody in Hollywood. Aside from the money and the power and the money and the power, I do it for only one reason: you.

"This kind of thing definitely plays differently for a number of people in the South where we have been referred to historically as the Bible Belt," said John Weatherford, PBA's general manager, who had to deal with the calls and complaints. "So why not just bleep it out. How much time or effort can that take? This was an entertainment piece. What would we have lost by bleeping it out?"

Another listener in Winston-Salem, NC wrote:

"I was shocked to hear a sound clip with strong profanity in the story about Tom Cruise," said David Shuford. "It would not have hurt you to bleep that out. This was very offensive. Did the producer ever think kids could be in the car hearing that? But that language isn't even fit for adults."

This is the second time I've written about this issue. Last July, it was about NPR bleeping out some offensive words in a piece about the movie, Hurt Locker, but not bothering to bleep out "god****."

It's against the law to say some words on air, according to the Federal Communication Commission. But NPR's legal team says that using the Lord's name in vain for emphasis is not illegal.

So even if it's not illegal, does that make it right?

This time, I'm seeing the question through a different lens – one that is not based in the New York-Washington corridor, where this example of offensive language often goes in one ear and out the other.

It may not be offensive to me. But NPR has 901 member stations and millions of listeners.

As of the latest national ratings period, fall 2009, NPR stations reach 33.9 million Americans every week, according to NPR data. NPR programming and newscasts reach 27.1 million.

There is no doubt that a healthy number of those listeners take the Lord's name seriously and are offended when it is taken in vain.

And it's not just in the South.

WSHU in Fairfield, CT, got a very irate call because the station didn't catch the warning that NPR sent out with the story. Even if someone at the station had seen the language warning, it's difficult to bleep out live. It would have been far easier if NPR had covered over the word.

Since the bulk of NPR's staff is in Washington, DC, I'm guessing that many staffers wouldn't even hear the Cruise clip as profane. But they should think about how others might hear it – including David Shuford and the others who called or wrote to complain.

It's a simple thing to bleep it out.

CBS and NBC both have a policy that forbids using the word on their air. NPR should adopt such a policy and ensure that its staff all knows about it and adheres to it.

This is an easy fix.

UPDATE: Before publishing, I made the case that I've written about to Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news, that NPR should institute a policy banning the word in question. But I wasn't successful.

While Weiss says she understands that some stations would like to see the word banned, she said, "I don't see a compelling reason to change our practice."

FOLLOW-UP TO BLEEPING (July 9, 2010:

When All Things Considered ran an interview with actress Helen Mirren on July 5 about her movie, Love Ranch, some of her salty language was bleeped out.

Ms. MIRREN: (as Grace Bontempo) Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Woman: (as Character) What the (bleep) about her? I'm going to go tell Charlie.

Ms. MIRREN: (as Grace Bontempo) Don't give me that macho (bleep).

Easy call, said Christopher Turpin, ATC's executive producer. "As I mentioned, in this case the words were "f**k" and "s**t," so there wasn't much discussion since both are clear violations of FCC rules," he said.

Last week, I suggested that NPR institute a policy where the word "goddamn" would be bleeped out on the air, the same way words banned from the air by the FCC are. Taking God's name in vain does not fall under the FCC rubric.

I quoted Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news, saying that she didn't see a need to change the current practice. I should have better explained NPR's practice, which is basically to evaluate bleeping out "god****" on a case-by-case basis.

Weiss said that whether to bleep out the word in the Tom Cruise clip was seriously debated, and the decision was to leave it in.

Stations were given an advisory, which means they could have decided to not use the story. But NPR did not provide an on-air warning.

According to Weiss, NPR "considers the context of the remark, who is saying it and the relevance it has to the story. When necessary we give an advisory to the audience. That was our practice on this story and that is what I meant when I said I see no compelling reason to change our policy."

I don't advocate an outright ban on god****, only to bleep it when it is used for emphasis as Cruise does, or in other movie clips.

If President Obama or any other politician used it in a speech or publicly, NPR should keep it in. In that case, it would be a telling, possibly important, detail. But bleep it when it's just gratuitious. Absolutely nothing would have been lost in bleeping the Cruise clip.

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