Should obscenities be allowed on radio?

The Washington Post (via NPR) has lifted the curtain on a debate underway within NPR on whether obscenities should be allowed on public radio.

Honk if you thought Nina Totenberg would be one of the NPR reporters most likely to push back against an edict that they be bleeped.

Weekend Edition host Scott Simon got things rolling on his program last week when Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards and practices boss, described the newsroom debate which focused on whether NPR can say someone is a (bleep) if someone says he/she is a (bleep) in news coverage.


Said Memmott in a memo to his staff:

“We’re professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we’re using or where we’re appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there’s more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn’t mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.
“We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!”

That earned pushback from Totenberg, the network’s Supreme Court reporter, according to the Post.

In a memo to newsroom staffers, she cited an audio report from Iraq by correspondent Eric Westervelt that featured soldiers’ shouted — and unbleeped — profanities during a firefight. “In life and death battles, it really would distract and sound stupid to bleep out such language,” she wrote. “We expect it in such situations.”

But Totenberg also presented a more problematic theoretical case to her colleagues: What if a prominent figure publicly insulted a female reporter by using a word that rhymes with (Bob edits: “Just you never mind what it rhymes with.”) (Totenberg used the word in her memo, thus eliciting Simon’s droll characterization of it.)

The Post says while Totenberg’s view has not held sway at NPR, it’s gotten support from colleagues who insist NPR is too bleep-happy.

“We can protect our audience right into a . . . coma,” one colleague said.

Of course, there’s another aspect of the debate that the NPR journalists may not be considering: NPR doesn’t own radio stations; their work is broadcast by radio stations whose sensibilities may not agree with Totenberg.

But what’s particularly cool is NPR had the discussion out in the open, and that Totenberg argued with an executive on the air.

We should have that more often.