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Expletives: A big ... deal

March 23, 2010 |  6:12 pm

Biden-obama For supporters of healthcare reform, President Obama’s signing of the legislation passed by the House on Sunday night was a big deal. A really big deal. A big … deal, according to Vice President Joe Biden, who filled in the blank with the f-word. Biden muttered the comment to Obama after introducing him at the bill-signing event, but a live microphone picked up the remark.

To The Times, Biden’s use of the f-word is a big … deal in itself.  The Times has not published the f-word since 1998, and that was in excerpts from the Starr Report, an investigation of President Clinton by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. And since 1985, The Times has never spelled out f-ing.

So, what to do in this case?

The Times’ guidelines on obscenity and taste issues state, in part:

Obscenities, profanity, vulgarities and coarse language, even in their milder forms, should not be used in The Times -- in print or online -- unless they are germane to the essence of a story.

Only compelling reasons -- uses that are essential to conveying a major point of a story or that are necessary to cast significant light on the character of a person being quoted -- are acceptable, and such instances will be extremely rare. Offending terms should be eliminated, or paraphrased (but without using language that still hints at the original), or excised by use of ellipses.

Do not replace an offending word with bracketed insertions such as [expletive deleted] or with hyphens or dashes, as this only invites the reader to fill in the blanks.

Was using the f-word essential to conveying the main point of the story, or would the usage cast significant light on Biden’s character?

No, said Richard Nelson, The Times’ national copy desk chief, who argued against using the word or setting it off with dashes. He thought the paper should follow the same standard as when then-Vice President Dick Cheney used the word in a curse at Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor in 2004. In that article, Cheney is quoted as having told Leahy, “Go … yourself.”

Additionally, the 2004 article was solely about the exchange between Cheney and Leahy. Biden’s quote was to appear as a side note to the larger news that Obama had signed the healthcare legislation.

So The Times used ellipses in Wednesday’s Page 1 article as well:

Vice President Joe Biden – as he embraced Obama – was caught by an open microphone using an obscenity, exclaiming, “This is a big ... deal.”

How did other news organizations handle it?

The New York Times went with ellipses, too, on its blog the Caucus:

“Mr. President, this is a big … deal,” he said, adding an adjective between the big and the deal that begins with “f.”

The Washington Post used brackets on its 44 blog:

After introducing Obama at Tuesday's health-care bill signing ceremony, Vice President Biden turned to the president and said, "This is a big [expletive] deal."

And the Wall Street Journal used dashes on its Washington Wire blog, as well as “F-Bomb” in the headline:

As the crowd applauded just before Obama took the microphone, a television camera for Fox News picked up Biden as he leaned into the president. Biden can be heard telling the president, “This is a big f- - - - - - - deal.”

It may be a big deal in historical terms, but not big enough to swear about it.

--Deirdre Edgar

Twitter: @LATreadersrep

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama at Tuesday's signing ceremony. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press