Careful readers of Saturday’s edition of The Union encountered a four-letter word for excrement this isn’t used in polite society, let alone a family newspaper. It’s just another example of how social standards are changing, if not for the better.
The word in question was in an article about a court hearing on numerous drug charges, and was part of some evidence introduced during the hearing. The word had quote marks around it, if that makes any difference. (In case you missed it and don’t want to re-read the paper, look for “Judge defers decision on Nevada County meth, heroin, pot case.”)
If that isn’t bad enough, today’s edition carried a claim that District Attorney Cliff Newell used a four-letter word for urination in a discussion with a former colleague. And to think we want our children to respect authority!
It has been observed that public discourse is becoming more coarse in America, an observation made long before Donald Trump surfaced as a presidential candidate. The taboos against the public display of nudity and sex have slowly dissolved over the years, and the use of swear words in public has become increasingly common. The free-wheeling internet, where it’s easy to be a bad boy anonymously, hasn’t helped.
Newspapers, television and radio have followed along, albeit slowly and largely reluctantly. When I was a boy reporter at the Palo Alto Times in the late ’60s, the approval of editor Alexander “The Great” Bodi was needed before “damn” or “hell” could be used in a news story.
Things hadn’t changed much when I reentered the news business as assistant city editor of The Union in the early ’00s, a job that required me to attend a daily meeting where we discussed the news and pictures going in the next day’s paper. I can recall one meeting where we spent 20 minutes debating whether to allow a four-letter word for sexual intercourse into the paper.
A public official had uttered the word in a semi-private setting, and a reporter from The Union was present to capture it for posterity. Half of those attending the meeting wanted to use the word because it was relevant to the story and he said it; the other half maintained we could make the point with a euphemism. The latter position prevailed, but that was the most swearing I’ve heard since I left the Army.
I’m no candidate for sainthood, but I’ve never been one to swear much and I find that I do it less frequently as I get older–for some reason, I’m not as easily frustrated or upset as I used to be. I don’t like the coarseness and general anger I see these days, and I don’t think adding scatology to the mix will improve matters.
I’m sure the people who make these decisions at The Union gave it some thought before permitting the two words into the paper, and I doubt it will become common. But we’ve come a long way from the days The New York Times could attract readers by promising to print “All the new that’s fit to print” and the publisher’s promise that contents of the paper wouldn’t soil the tablecloth.