Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 05:05 PM
Old and new media cultures clashed this week when a New York Times editor decided not to print the name of a blog referred to in this story about the app UnBaby.me. The site in question is STFU, Parents, a popular source for tongue-in-cheek mockery of parents who are over-enthusiastic about sharing pictures of their children online.
The blog’s owner, known online as “B,” wrote The Times in hopes of having a reference to her site added. The response from Senior Editor for Standards Greg Brock set her straight:
We did not name the site because The Times does not use such references when they refer to things like Shut The F*ck Up.
According to the paper’s style guide, “The Times virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones.” The document cites Times founder Adolph S. Ochs, who said in 1896 that the paper’s mission was to present the news “in language that is parliamentary in good society.”
Much of the response to the episode has focused on NYT editors’ prissiness, their insistence on holding what critics see as an unnaturally hard line on profanity.
Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon wrote:
The New York Times prides itself on being one of the last, great bastions of clean language. It is a place where no F bombs drop, where dads do not say “shit.” Yet in an increasingly bleepworthy world, the paper of record’s profanity-avoidance tactics are beginning to look not just demure, but like poor journalism.
Compared to its rival publications, this accusation seems to hold up. The New Yorker magazine addressed the issue head-on in a piece called Dropping the F-Bomb. The Washington Post published an article about STFU, Parents earlier this year. Joanna Weiss of The Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times Company, named the blog in a story about the controversy. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary recently added the word “F-bomb” to listings.
Jen Doll of The Atlantic Wire zeroed in on the seeming arbitrariness of the The Times’ choices:
When the standard becomes reflective of inconsistency more than any real standard, maybe it's time to revamp the standard.
The offending article contained explicit references and links to two blogs that are similar in spirit to STFU, Parents: Anti-Baby and Stuff Hipsters Hate. Anti-Baby’s front page header reads: “because we’re sick of all these fucking babies.” The Times has also been naming Russian protest band Pussy Riot in the paper’s on-going coverage of their arrest and trial.
The section of the Times Stylebook that most closely pertains to the abbreviation “STFU” is:
The Times also forgoes offensive or coy hints. An article should not seem to be saying, “Look, I want to use this word, but they won’t let me.”
But The Times has been inconsistent on this point as well. The paper referred to a popular eBook at various times as both Go the ___ to Sleep and Go the F@#k to Sleep. In what seems like the closest parallel of all, NYT published a feature on the
up-and-coming indie band massively popular electropop band LMFAO (which, the bands’ protestations notwithstanding, is internet-speak for Laughing My Fucking Ass Off).
It’s also worth noting that using the expression STFU is a form of family-friendly self-censorship common online. "B" makes the case herself:
I use the acronym for a reason! (So that people understand its 'Internet lingo' and therefore have a greater chance of thinking that it's tongue-in-cheek).
Another piece of lingo, the expression “LOL” (laughing out loud), has morphed over time to the point that it’s now often used as verb as in “OMG, I lol-ed so hard at that.” In this way the acronym has taken on a life of its own. One could argue STFU should be treated the same way, as an autonomous bit of language detached from its original signification.
In an email, Brock drew a distinction between the way The Times treats the titles of songs, books, movies, and plays on the one hand, and how it treats links to websites and videos on the other. With the former group of cases, he wrote, ordinary standards are often bent. In the latter case guidelines are in the process of being hammered out and editors are often forced to make judgment calls, as seems to have happened in this case. In reference to his own process for judging obscenity, Brock cited Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: he knows it when he sees it.
To many internet users, these categories are becoming less and less relevant. It’s hard to see why STFU, Parents doesn’t get the same artistic-license exception that LMFAO and Go the Fuck to Sleep get. The Times’ editors are implying that bloggers are not artists and shouldn’t be treated as such, whether they intend it or not.
In all likelihood, this particular kerfuffle will die down and The Times will slowly but surely change with… the times. For now, readers will have to bear with the Grey Lady’s somewhat conservative arbiters of taste.