Saturday, February 09, 2008

Decency: Come Back, Back, Baby

I am not a prude. I don’t blanch or even wince at the F word. I have even been known to use it myself, if rarely. I suspect that there has been profanity as long as there has been language. It serves more than one role in our culture: emphasis, machismo, daring for the young, and probably a host of others. But the point has always been that to use profanity is to step outside the norm for behavior in most settings.

One of the places profanity did not rear its ugly head was in media, cable notwithstanding. Lately, the casual use of formerly unthinkable language has begun to creep onto our airwaves and into our print media houses.

I’m not sure how you fire a billionaire CEO, but Tribune Company should certainly consider at the least muzzling theirs, or perhaps just not letting him address the troops. When was the last time the head of your company said “Fuck You” in response to a question you asked? It happened at the Orlando Sentinel for all the employees and, since it was videotaped and this is the 21st century, all the world to hear. Thinking perhaps Mr. Zell must have been provoked? Not so. His uncouth language was a punctuation mark in response to a rather soft-voiced young woman’s mildly posed question about journalistic policy. Hear it for yourself at

Was Sam chastened by the uproar that resulted? Apparently not. In a subsequent visit to the Los Angeles Times, while touring a printing plant in Orange County, Sam appeared shocked to learn that Times’ policy banned accepting advertising from strip clubs and gun stores. His response, “Everyone likes pussy. It’s un-American not to like pussy.” There are several accounts of this incident. This one provides a lot of detail and context:

Lest anyone think that Sam Zell is merely a one-man profanity parade, MSNBC anchor David Shuster on Thursday asked a guest on air, “Doesn’t it seem like Chelsea’s sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?” referring to Chelsea’s calls to celebrities and party super delegates seeking support for her mother’s Presidential bid. Hear it yourself:

Huh? Are you kidding me? In his grudging, halting apology the next day on MSNBC, Shuster referred to the phrase “pimped out” as slang and said that he didn’t mean it in “a pejorative way.” Right, he meant the warm and fuzzy way you say to a woman, “You bein’ pimped out? or are you just a ’ho all by yourself?

Of course, the common denominator in all of this is the imprimateur of business-as-usual and societal norm on the age-old pastime of men demeaning women. I attribute some of this phenomenon to the mainstreaming of rap. When rap first routinely referred to women as ’hos and regularly characterized them as disposable, worthless, and meant to be used by men, there was some outcry. Sadly, the people doing the complaining were simply labeled as unhip, even racist for not seeing the raw poetry and art in the form. If there was truth in the latter, it still did not negate the truth of the former. Recently, a number of noted members of the black community have begun to deplore some of the trickle-down impact of the negative portrayal of and language about women that rap has fostered. I hope very much that we all stand up and protest loudly. We can stop this very ugly trend.

Shuster’s mealy-mouthed non-apology was in no way enough. Hey, David, get your dick out of your mouth. As for Zell, billions of dollars apparently render one apology-proof. That does not mean that the rest of us should not speak up long and loud to say that his behavior is unacceptable. I want to hear the men of America, led by the men in the media, stand up and say that decent men do not use expressions like fuck you or pussy, or refer to others as pimps or to women as being pimped out in conversation or public discourse.

Sam Zell, grow up, old man. Apparently, your money was not enough to buy you a replacement for your thin skin. Oh, and by the way, there is a power imbalance in the employer-employee relationship that means you are held to a higher standard of conduct.

David Shuster, you disgust me. “Have you no decency, sir?” Oh, that’s right, you don’t. You’ve shown us that already.

Finally, from the Voice to the men of MSNBC including the usually level-headed and fair-minded Keith Ohlberman: I don’t care one whit about David Shuster’s body of work. It does not excuse, nor does it atone for his outrageous remark. Fire him. That’s what you would have done if he had called Barack Obama a pimp. This is no better.