On Feb. 3, the Los Angeles Times ran an obituary of Earl Butz, who served as secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Per the obit: "He was forced to resign his Cabinet post in October 1976 after telling an obscene joke that was derogatory to blacks."
Two days later, The Times ran another article, this time about its new owner, Sam Zell. A photographer at one of his other newspapers had asked Zell about the type of coverage he expected from reporters. In responding, Zell apparently became angry because she turned her back on him before he was finished, so he directed what the paper called a "two-word obscenity" at her.
Now, I understand that The Times still considers itself a family newspaper, one in which bad words don't exist and sex ads get exiled to the classifieds section, sans sexy shots. And I agree that the gratuitous use of profanity can cheapen an august institution (even one that runs Joel Stein on a weekly basis). But it's one thing to publish an unedited Howard Stern rant or print a transcript of the latest Paris Hilton sexcapades; it's quite another when the vulgarity itself is the story. And in the case of Butz, Zell and other public figures who stir up a fuss for the words they use, The Times fails spectacularly.
Let's start with Butz. If a reader knew nothing but what he read in The Times' obituary, he'd have no clue what was going on. Heaven knows there are hundreds of offensive ethnic jokes, but Butz's really took the cake for its level of depravity and its flippant delivery in front of other government officials. Yet an otherwise uninformed Times reader is left scratching his head about a joke so "derogatory to blacks" that it killed the political career of a Cabinet member. Was it a tired retread about basketball? Skin tone? Something sexual? Was this a case of political correctness run amok, the ramblings of a tired old man a la former Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis' dismissal of African American managers on "Nightline?" Was it a dramatic reading of "Amos 'n' Andy?" The Times doesn't even bother to let us know.
Other newspapers, on the other hand, had fewer qualms about Butz's insult. The New York Times, America's epitome of a too-genteel newspaper, wrote in its obituary, "Mr. Butz made a remark in which he described blacks as 'coloreds' who wanted only three things -- satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom -- desires that Mr. Butz listed in obscene and scatological terms." Doesn't quite capture the flavor of the original, but it's closer. Reuters used a description similar to the New York Times' measured take, as did Butz's home state daily, the Indianapolis Star. None of them printed Butz's full joke, but their approach makes them veritable George Carlins to the Los Angeles Times' Jeff Foxworthy.
The Times' coverage of its loose-lipped boss is even more hilariously dowdy. Seriously, Spring Street: a "two-word obscenity?" What on Earth did Zell say? "Darn tootin'? " "God dammit?" (Or is that one word?) "Mitt Romney?" If the story deserves to be written, don't we deserve to know what it's really about? The Chicago Tribune did a slightly better job describing Zell's snafu, describing his jab as a "four-letter" word -- and as weak as that description is (was the offending term "poop?" "Hell?" "Hola?"), it's still much better than what The Times allowed.
Granted, The Times has sometimes joined my main employer, the OC Weekly, in the gutter. When Vice President Richard (can't be using four-letter words in this column now, can we?) Cheney told Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy to go, um, procreate in a gross manner with himself a few years ago, The Times found the cojones (do you think I can say that?) then to write that Cheney had dropped "the f-word." Why the double standard, Times? Is it that GOP officials can display a potty mouth but your fearless leader can't? What a crock of (word deleted by myself before Times editors bust out the thesaurus).
The silliest part of all this? Anyone can easily find the unexpurgated Zell and Butz quotes on the Internet in about three seconds. Curious readers like myself will merely forsake The Times and other such prudish newspapers and go directly to news organizations with no such compunction. The Times doesn't have to insert bad words in every story to remain relevant; just print the news and leave the bowdlerizing to the Orange County Register.
The fact that I can't print Butz's joke or Zell's f-bomb in a Times column criticizing The Times for not printing them in the first place is ridiculous.
Hey, Zell: I hear you love to curse. How about making this paper reflect your saltiness, you (same word Zell uses to insult reporters, no doubt appreciated by him, but that can't appear in the Los Angeles Times -- yet)?