How the Media Dealt With Carl Levin's 'S--tty' Questions

American broadcast TV networks appeared to have no hesitation about what to do when Sen. Carl Levin, grand inquisitor in a Senate investigation into the alleged delinquencies of Goldman Sachs, repeatedly quoted from an internal e-mail circulated within the investment bank that used a dirty word. "boy that timeberwof [misspelling of Timberwolf] was one s--tty deal," wrote one senior Goldman banker to another in June 2007. At a jampacked public hearing on Tuesday, Levin repeatedly badgered the recipient of the message, a young former Goldman exec, about whether the bank informed clients who bought the complex financial derivative that the message described as "s--tty" of its true feelings about the investment deal. All three principal American broadcast TV networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—bleeped out Levin's expletive.

But the BBC, generally regarded as the global gold standard for both editorial judgment and good taste in news broadcasting, took a different tack. On a routine half-hour news program that a NEWSWEEK reporter viewed Tuesday at 10 p.m. (New York time) on the BBC's World News Channel (not the same as BBC America), the bad word that Levin read out from the e-mail, and then repeatedly mentioned in his questions, was not censored. The world—or at least anyone around the world who was watching that particular half-hour news feed from BBC HQ in London—heard the word "s--tty" come out of Senator Levin's mouth several times in the space of a short compilation of sound bites.

Peter Connors, a senior press officer for BBC Global News, explained the BBC's decision to air what Britons would call a "rude" word in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK:

BBC World News believes that it was correct to broadcast a news clip from the US Congressional hearing into Goldman Sachs during which Senator Carl Levin was quoting a document which used language that some people may have found offensive.The BBC thought carefully before including the sequence in our broadcasts and is aware of the sensitivities surrounding certain language amongst our global audience. We took the view that it would distort the truth of what was being said in the US Senate if we had either edited out or "bleeped" the offending word. To do so would fail to give our viewers a realistic picture of what happened in the hearing. The language was strong, but it was used by the Chairman of the hearing who was making a very important point.

Connors continued: "We took the view that if the language was being used in a public hearing in that way, it would seem odd to deny audiences the ability to hear it in full. 'Bleeping' the words would have significantly affected the impact of the sequence, and may even have led some viewers to conclude he was using stronger language than he actually was. The BBC believes that our global audience have certain expectations when it comes to impartial news and current affairs, however we do regret any offense caused." He added that the unbleeped story was also used by BBC news programs other than the one seen by NEWSWEEK, though he did not respond to our request for information as to which other programs did use the dirty word, and whether they included prominent news programs broadcast on domestic BBC TV and radio networks in Britain.

Two sources at CBS said their evening news, anchored by Katie Couric, had bleeped the excremental epithet from its broadcast, though the word was left intact in the body of this item posted on the CBS News Web site (the headline was censored). Spokespeople for NBC and ABC News said their network news broadcasts also bleeped out the scatological term. But the NBC spokesperson also acknowledged that an uncensored version of Levin's sound bite was aired on Countdown, the daily prime-time hour on NBC's cable affiliate, MSNBC, fronted by outspoken liberal Keith Olbermann. The NBC spokesperson said that the decision to air the word unbleeped on Countdown was made by the show's producers with the approval of cable-network management.

TV news executives say that the American networks are particularly careful to censor out "s--t," "f--k," and other common curses because they are directly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, which has authority to penalize not only the networks but their local affiliates for broadcasting material that in the past has been considered legally taboo. By contrast, cable channels are generally regarded as outside the purview of government regulation; if HBO had been forced to censor a program like the Mafia soap opera The Sopranos, the story would probably have been incomprehensible. NEWSWEEK, family-friendly magazine that it is, does the print equivalent of bleeping, substituting hyphens for all but the first and last letters.

Ironically, despite the lack of government regulation of cable, another prominent broadcast to bleep the dirty words out of Levin's sound bites at the Goldman hearing was Comedy Central's "fake news" program, The Daily Show, where host Jon Stewart and his stable of correspondents routinely use dirty words in their jokes and are routinely censored. Steve Albani, a Comedy Central spokesman, confirmed that the network's policy was "to bleep the word 's--t,' " although he noted that the channel had made one notable exception in the case of a South Park episode in which broadcasting repeated mentions of the word "s--t" was the central point of the story. Last week Comedy Central's censorship policies became the subject of an international controversy when the channel not only bleeped out multiple verbal references to Muhammad in a South Park episode but also put video black holes over cartoon images depicting the Muslim prophet. This censorship followed the issuing of veiled death threats to South Park's producers by a Web site operated by obscure U.S.-based Muslim extremists.

How the Media Dealt With Carl Levin's 'S--tty' Questions | News