Kicking You-Know-What : NPR Public Editor Occasionally a word that was once a "no-no" finds itself in our everyday lexicon. The problem for editors is deciding just when a word has become respectable. The latest debate is over "ass." We're undecided. What do you think?
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Kicking You-Know-What

NPR aired a review of "The Expendables 2" calling it a violent but thought provoking film. One listener took offense to the language used to describe its powerhouse of superstars. Frank Masi hide caption

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Frank Masi

NPR aired a review of "The Expendables 2" calling it a violent but thought provoking film. One listener took offense to the language used to describe its powerhouse of superstars.

Frank Masi

In a recent movie review, Morning Edition host David Greene went out of his way to avoid a certain word.

"'The Expendables 2' is kicking some you-know-what at the box office," Greene said.

But only a few minutes later, Hollywood screenwriter and NPR contributor John Ridley said the film features nearly "190 years of ass whoop on the silver screen."

For Christopher Aceto of Middlefield, CT that was enough to get him to the computer.

I am a long time listener and I have noticed a trend lately where NPR has allowed inappropriate language over the air. I am not a Puritan, I just expect more from NPR. This morning was the proverbial "last straw" for me--listening to a commentator use the term "ass-whopping" in a piece was inappropriate and unnecessary. In looking at NPR's editorial guidelines, I found a section that states: "there are rare instances where we will permit use of profane or indecent languages for news or programmatic reasons. Such an instance is when the use of such language is so vital to the essence of the story that to excise or bleep it would be to distort it or blunt its power and meaning." The writer of this piece could simply have used the term "whopping" and everyone would have gotten the point--I do not find any redeeming value in the use of "ass" for this story. I listen to NPR every day with my family because it is a place of refuge from the harsh noise that surrounds us.

We shared Aceto's letter with Morning Edition's Supervising Senior Editor Shannon Rhoades. She wrote:

Morning Edition editors discussed the script and checked transcripts, as we often do, to see how the word has been used on NPR's air in the past. Given the nature of the film in question — and the lively, decidedly un-stuffy writing of John Ridley — the expression felt both real and appropriate.

Ridley's thoughts on Aceto's complaint were less explanatory, but certainly "lively":

A commentary about summer movies and the hypocritical embrace of both sides of the social divide of violence in the media, and your entire take away was 'ass whoop?'

Really? That's it?

'Ass whoop?'



In the last year, the word has appeared 22 times in NPR produced news reports, including Ridley's review. Interview guests and callers have said "ass" 14 times on air. NPR hosts, reporters and guest commentators said the rest. Three were direct quotes, three were in reference to the animal and two, Ridley's included, used the term in a casual manner.

We don't know if the word has become formally respectable to the rest of society, but with that record it seems to be going mainstream on NPR, at least for a fair number of circumstances. Is this OK? If so, when?

Frankly, none of us inside NPR know. Please help us decide.

While we're talking about body parts, several readers also wrote to complain about reports that named the Russian band "Pussy Riot" in stories about the three band members being sentenced to jail for "hooliganism." We don't see how you can avoid giving the band's name, but for the fun of debate, what if the name were truly offensive? Please don't offer examples! (They won't get by the comment moderators.)