Subscribers to the Napa Valley Register experienced quite a jolt last week when they read an expletive-laden front-page article about the closure of a Napa homeless encampment.
One man quoted in the story used profane language as he angrily reacted to the news that the city would be clearing out the camp. Reporter Jennifer Huffman, with the authorization of Register editor Sean Scully (who’s also my boss), quoted him word for word.
The article isn’t running in the Star, not because I object to the language per se but because it’s narrowly focused on the City of Napa and I don’t have a ton of news space in this week’s paper anyway. However, the article, and Scully’s subsequent column explaining why it ran unredacted, got me thinking about what place, if any, vulgarity and profanity have in the Star.
The Star is a family paper, and I love to imagine parents and kids poring over it on Thursday morning, chuckling at the police log and looking for familiar faces in the photos.
People are also reading…
That said, St. Helena isn’t always a family-friendly place, and the Star would be failing its readers if it avoided adult subject matter that was newsworthy.
One obvious example is rape and child molestation. Back in 2008 high school wrestling and volleyball coach Herschel Sandler was convicted of sexually molesting two students. We picked up the Register’s updates on his case, but some readers took the Star to task for not tackling the story ourselves and reporting on the scandal’s human toll in the school community and beyond.
When I read the issues that were published around that time, the criticism seems justified.
But are vulgarity and profanity ever essential to news reporting? The best answer is “yes, sometimes,” but it’s hard to say where to draw that line.
Looking back through our archives, I found a few unexpurgated expletives of the sort one wouldn’t use in front of one’s mother.
A World War II veteran and ex-POW used one in a direct quote referring to a beating he suffered at the hands of a racist German officer who suspected he was Jewish. A former stock car racer uttered the four-letter word he’d written on the bottom of his car. Opinion pieces denouncing racism used the N-word (disapprovingly) as recently as 2007.
Some of the most offensive language is from around the turn of the 20th century, when the Star expressed racist sentiments against Black and Chinese people using racial slurs and stereotypes that would rightfully appall today’s readers.
If I could retroactively play editor, I would keep the POW’s vulgarity intact, put asterisks in the stock car anecdote, probably replace the N-word with the euphemism “the N-word” (although I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that it should be spelled out in all its ugliness), and of course cut the racist jokes and epithets of the early 1900s.
But try as I might, I can’t come up with a prescriptive rule on when uncensored profanity is and isn’t essential.
Here’s how Scully put it in his column about last week’s Register article: “The man’s comments, as intemperate as they were, seemed essential in describing the scene that Jennifer witnessed. They captured the unfiltered despair, fear, and impotent rage at news that the only home he knows, meager as it is, will be taken away.
“In other words, his comments made me feel his plight. They made me uncomfortable. I knew they would make readers uncomfortable.
“Sometimes uncomfortable is good.”
Scully’s thoughts are pretty close to mine.
Families who open their Thursday paper shouldn’t expect to see profanity, certainly not the casual kind you’d find in an alt-weekly or a blog. But in the rare instance that a vulgar or profane quote is necessary to convey the emotional stakes of a news story, without sinking to the level of mere shock value, I’ll print it, along with an introductory warning like the one the Register used.
To readers who object that offensive language has no place in the Star under any circumstance, I wish you’d been with me in a crowded line outside Gott’s on Saturday night, when I heard a clearly intoxicated man behind me refer to an Asian woman a few places in front of me as a “chink.”
I couldn’t be sure who said it, so I just whirled around and directed an icy glare at the most likely suspect.
The world — even St. Helena’s little corner of it — can be an ugly and vulgar place. It's the Star's job to cover it, not sanitize it.
Photos: St. Helena Harvest Festival and Pet Parade, 2021
Jurassic Bark entry in St. Helena Pet Parade
Reed and Wesley Galbraith
Valentine entry in Pet Parade
St. Helena High School band
Valentine entry in Pet Parade
Daniel Hamlin, St. Helena Odd Fellows
Child reaching for candy
St. Helena Fire Department at Harvest Festival
St. Helena Heritage Center
Coca-Cola entry in Pet Parade
Glass artist Krista Flood
You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.