Utah is arguably one of the most conservative states and, undoubtedly, is one of the most Republican.
So how do you describe the state when you are trying to explain why one conservative Republican running for the Senate beat out another conservative?
NPR correspondent Howard Berkes, based in Salt Lake City, decided it was a matter of degrees when he was reporting on a primary in which Utah Republicans were picking a replacement for ousted U.S. Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, an 18-year veteran.
In a spot for NPR newscasts on June 22, when Utahans were going to the polls, Berkes used the term "ultra-conservative:"
"Only Republicans can vote in the Utah G-O-P primary, where two ultra-conservatives are vying to replace veteran Sen. Bob Bennett, who wasn't deemed conservative enough at the state nominating convention last month. The winner is expected to win in November. It's been 40 years since Utahans sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate."
When Richard Walker of Arlington, VA, heard the hourly news report, the term "'ultra-conservative" jumped out at him.
"You called the two Republican candidates in Utah 'ultra-conservatives,'" wrote Walker. "Does NPR ever call a candidate an 'ultra-liberal'? Barbara Lee? Dennis Kucinich? Bernie Sanders? Or are only conservatives 'ultra' in NPR's world?"
Almost, but not quite. NPR's librarian Katie Daugert came up with 8 examples of groups or people being described as "ultra-liberal" in the last 5 years. In 2 cases, the term was used by NPR staffers; other uses were by guests or commentators.
By contrast, the term "ultra-conservative" appeared on air 42 times in the last 5 years. NPR staffers used it 17 times, and others used it 24 times.
Berkes explained why he thought "ultra-conservative" was necessary in his news spot.
"'Ultra-conservative' recognizes a political reality in a state where 'conservative' is too broad a description," said Berkes, who joined NPR nearly three decades ago. "By all conventional measures (voting record, public positions on issues, the judgment of his peers) Bennett is a solid conservative. But in politically fractured Utah, there are gradations of conservatism that are politically critical."
He said that in Utah, you have to think of subsets among conservatives. Some are strict constitutionalists. Some are in the Tea Party. Some are anti-immigration activists.
"It's a diverse group that shares one attribute," said Berkes. "They see themselves as more deeply conservative than Bob Bennett and the other elected conservatives they've opposed or chastised. They are ultra-conservatives."
He considered using the terms "extreme conservatives" or even "extremists," but rightfully decided that both had negative connotations.
"In Utah, 'ultra-conservative' is an accurate and respectful way of describing a political phenomenon that, among other things, toppled a popular incumbent who is clearly conservative but not conservative enough in the estimation of those who toppled him," he said.
As for ultra-liberal, Berkes said it's not likely to come up in Utah, where being called "liberal"' is the political kiss of death.
"Countless Democrats here have been pummeled as 'Tip O'Neil liberals,' or 'Ted Kennedy liberals," or 'Nancy Pelosi liberals' and now, as 'Barack Obama liberals,'" said Berkes. "No gradations are necessary here. But if gradations develop, I would not hesitate to use 'ultra-liberal.' "
The term "ultra" – whether applied to political, religious, or any other kind of belief – is best avoided whenever possible. For many people, it is similar to calling someone an "extremist." Also, as with "extremist," the term "ultra" is in the eye of the beholder.
Most likely, the Republicans who ran against Sen. Bennett, and those who voted to dump him, think of themselves as being in the mainstream of Utah Republicanism, and to them it was the senator who was out of line.
Even so, journalists need words to describe people and things, particularly when conveying the news to those who are not intimately familiar with the subject or details of any given story.
Given the context of this particular story, it was reasonable for Berkes to call Bennett's opponents "ultra-conservatives," if only to help listeners outside Utah understand why that state's Republicans were choosing a replacement for a veteran senator.
FOLLOW-UP TO BLEEPING:
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.