Bleep Alert

There we were on public television, three adults trying to talk intelligently about a word we weren’t allowed to say, another word the audience wasn’t allowed to hear, and a gesture it wasn’t allowed to see. I’m sure that when our discussion wrapped up at about 7:30 PM, everyone watching at home went straight to bed.

But I was willing to give WTTW the C word. “The most offensive word anyone can call a female,” said moderator Phil Ponce. The young woman applying my makeup told me it was the most offensive word she could think of, even worse than “the F word.” When I read the article we were on Chicago Tonight on October 28 to talk about–the one the Tribune had desperately pulled two days earlier from some 600,000 newspapers–I remembered the last time I’d heard the C word: on the season-ending installment of The Sopranos, when Tony and Christopher tried in their sick, delusional way to shrug off the murder of Adriana. If the Adrianas of America are fighting back by appropriating cunt for their own use, that’s news–news editor Ann Marie Lipinski wouldn’t let the Tribune print.

Overruling the editors who’d OK’d the C-word story to run in the October 27 WomanNews section, Lipinski yanked the section the day before and ordered a substitute. Every spare body at the Tribune was redeployed to the Freedom Center printing plant to peel the offending WomanNews from the Wednesday Tribune’s package of preprinted sections. The Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, and Crain’s Chicago Business all reported on this debacle. Aside from a note of regret on page two, the Tribune did not.

Chicago Tonight panelist Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, thought Lipinski had overreacted. So did I. Lisa Bertagnoli, the freelancer who wrote the story, was the third member of the panel, and she was more nonchalant. When she woke up Wednesday morning and discovered another lead story in WomanNews, she assumed hers had been pushed back a week.

A Sun-Times reporter called and told her otherwise. The headline she’d suggested was “Move over B, here comes C,” and she agrees with Ghiglione that the headline Tribune editors wrote instead, “You c_nt say that (or can you?),” probably sank the story. “The headline came closer to saying the word than I did in the entire story,” she says. She also thinks the story might have skated by if it had been inside the section instead of plastered across page one. But in her view it’s the Tribune’s business what it publishes.

“In retrospect,” says Bertagnoli, “the warning might have been that I couldn’t get the story through their e-mail system.” After writing it, she tried to e-mail the story to WomanNews editor Cassandra West at the paper, but Tribune filters kept rejecting it. Words like bitch and faggot made it undeliverable. Bertagnoli wound up sending it to West at her home.

The Chicago Tonight producer who’d invited me on the show told me the conversation would range beyond the C word. We’d also be asked about the big photo on the back page of the October 18 Sun-Times of a fan giving Jonathan Quinn the finger as the Bears’ quarterback trudged off the field after a dismal defeat. And we’d consider what Jon Stewart said on October 15 as a guest on CNN’s Crossfire.

Stewart had assailed the show’s hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. In the classic manner of the clown who’s a sucker for gravity, he couldn’t understand why they wasted a forum that allowed them to talk seriously about the nation’s matters and settled for bickering shtick.

I’d come prepared to expound on Stewart’s righteous indignation, totally failing to see that all Chicago Tonight cared about was one thing he said to Carlson: “You know what’s interesting, though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”

Carlson responded, “Now you’re getting into it. I like that.”

Since I knew what Stewart’s issue was, I didn’t pay much attention when Ponce played a clip from Crossfire on the air. Then Ponce asked Ghiglione what he thought, and he replied, “I think the boundaries are changing. And that parti-cular word, the D word, if you will–” Ponce laughed and said, “We’re working our way through the alphabet.”

When I watched Chicago Tonight’s midnight rerun I discovered that WTTW had bleeped Stewart’s “dick” and digitized the Bears fan’s middle finger into illegibility.

Executive news producer Mary Field made these calls, and I later asked her why the station had been so namby-pamby. “A finger is a pictorial representation of an obscenity,” she explained. “If you digitize this, everyone knows what’s going on. But it’s not a part of the civil discourse.”

Dissatisfied with that answer, she called me back. “We were trying to have a conversation about the changing nature of language,” she said, “and it’s our job to do that in a way that the most viewers can hear and listen to. And sometimes when you use obscenity, or if I had used the finger in an undigitized form, it would have offended some number of our viewers, and that would have gotten in the way of the story.”

Here’s another way of looking at it. Any obscenity you can talk about openly isn’t worth talking about. The bleeps, blurs, elisions, and general air of circumspection must have persuaded some WTTW viewers that our topic was really sensational.

I’d come to Chicago Tonight with that day’s RedEye in my pocket. Let no one forget that RedEye is sold as an edition of the Tribune and that Lipinski is nominally its editor. Moreover, this particular RedEye had arrived at my house tucked inside the Tribune.

So time permitting, I’d intended to read from “Casual Sex,” a column on page 60. RedEye “special contributor” Laura Baron was dealing with an age-old concern, keeping it interesting. “Play porn star if you want to,” she advised. “Seek out a bondage club. . . . Get kinky, explore each other. . . . No need to be a professional to try these stunts at home. You can still perform like a porn star.”

This is the tide that’s risen far past Lipinski’s ankles. The heritage-free Sun-Times can afford to be insouciant about vulgarity. In the November 1 issue, for example, Richard Roeper, looking back on the year’s silliest political stories, demurely recalled Stewart calling Carlson a “d—” as a photo caption for the story helpfully explained that he’d called him “a four-letter word that rhymes with ‘prick.'”

But the Tribune’s not the Sun-Times. We expect it to yield slowly and reluctantly to slackening standards. Ignoring a question I’d asked about RedEye, Lipinski e-mailed me this comment on Bertagnoli’s story.

“I can imagine a very gifted writer successfully executing a Tribune story about the sort of toxic language used to describe and disparage women. That’s not the story we got. Our standards on the use of vulgarity or obscenity are pretty clear, and they weren’t upheld. It was an effort unworthy of our readers. As you know, it’s not uncommon in a newsroom for a story to be spiked; it’s just the only time I’ve done it on the loading dock.”

I think Lipinski’s judgment was clouded by her acute concern for the Tribune’s dignity. Bertagnoli’s story got out to some readers anyway. A Tribune spokesman told me there wasn’t a single complaint.

Mark Steyn’s Big Leap

Last week I took a shot at Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn for using an outbreak of an opportunistic bacterium in Quebec to trash the Canadian health care system. Steyn wrote, “One thousand Quebecers are killed by insufficient hand-washing in their filthy, decrepit health care system, and kindly progressive Americans can’t wait to bring it south of the border.” That sounded overwrought to me, and a Canadian expert I consulted about the infection, Clostridium difficile, dismissed Steyn’s column as “outrageous, raving poppycock.”

I’d asked Steyn for research supporting his claims, and after my column came out he pointed me to a packet of articles in the July 6, 2004, issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. CMAJ called C. difficile a “formidable foe” and reported that it was increasing in incidence “in many hospitals across Canada, the United States and elsewhere.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported “a steady increase from 1987 to 2001,” but the study under discussion in CMAJ had been limited to Quebec, where the number of cases was four to five times what it had been a couple of years earlier. The number of deaths had risen sharply, as had the number of relapses.

The study’s investigators had only hypotheses to offer. “A new virulent strain may have been introduced by importation or by mutation.” C. difficile might have surged because it strikes mainly elderly, debilitated hospital patients, and their numbers had increased in the province’s hospitals. It targets patients whose natural defenses have been weakened by antibiotics, and new antibiotics might be to blame. So might proton pump inhibitors, a class of drugs (Prevacid is one) that fight gastrointestinal diseases and could have made patients’ guts a safer haven for C. difficile.

And then there were the factors that attracted Steyn. “The aging infrastructure of hospitals and our willingness to tolerate hospital rooms with 4 patients and a single bathroom, less than 3 feet between beds and progressively fewer resources assigned to housekeeping all facilitate the spread of this disease, as does our inability to achieve acceptable levels of hand hygiene among hospital staff. . . . Decades of underfunding and under-resourcing of public health and infection control across Canada have resulted in hospital infection control programs that have insufficient human and other resources for the fight.”

Aside from mentioning in passing that C. difficile cases have become more common in the U.S. as well, CMAJ had nothing to say about how the bacterium has fared within the American health system. The study was of Quebec, not Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont. For that matter, the study called the Canadian system underfunded, not structurally unsound. But it gave Steyn an opportunity to attack the system, and he took it.

Did it provide the evidence he needed to call C. difficile “a bacterium caused [my emphasis] by inattention to hygiene–by unionized, unsackable cleaners who don’t clean properly”? No. To assert that if Bill Clinton’s heart bypass had been performed in Montreal “he would have had the surgery, woken up the next day swimming in diarrhea and then died”? No. To declare that “Quebec’s health system is a lot less healthy than, for example, Iraq’s”? Of course not.

That was Steyn being Steyn. But the study did provide enough fuel for a polemicist to get his steam up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.