Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘language

Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn

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goddamn

Three goddamns.

That’s how many were in an interview between OPB’s “Think Outloud” host Dave Miller and “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert in their rebroadcasted interview today from September 2015.  Although not one of George Carlin’s original “Seven Dirty Words”, the trifecta reminded me of a 2009 interview NPR’s Madeline Brand had with Jeremy Renner, who had starred in “The Hurt Locker”.  Words were bleeped but his use of “goddamn” wasn’t, which prompted a listener to ask the NPR Ombudsman why not?

The Ombudsman replied that “using god damn it” is not legally profane, according to the FCC.  The phrase is not, in legal parlance, “actionable”.  The federal agency defines three standards for language; obscene, profane and indecent:

1. Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment.  For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

2. Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

3. Profane content includes “grossly offensive” language that is considered a public nuisance.

However, a training pamphlet from KBOO Community Radio in Portland, Oregon, identifies words and contexts that apparently are to be avoided just in case an official decided to interpret the law a little more broadly.  These include not playing certain songs or repeating certain song titles, sexual jokes or innuendo, creative editing of profane or indecent words or fleeting references, such as “Oh Shit!”

KBOO giving the realm of questionable language such a wide berth might have something to do with the fact that the station was fined $7000 in 2001 for violating community standards on its “Soundbox” program.  The station had broadcast a poem by performer Sarah Jones that included lyrics the FCC considered indecent.

From the FCC lawsuit:
Radio Station:  KBOO-FM, Portland, Oregon
Date/Time Broadcast:   October 20, 1999, on the “Soundbox,” between 7:00  and 9:00 p.m.
Material Broadcast:  “Your Revolution”

(Various female voices)

Your revolution will not happen between these thighs
Your revolution will not happen between these thighs
Your revolution will not happen between these thighs
Will not happen between these thighs
Will not happen between these thighs
The real revolution ain’t about bootie size
The Versaces you buys
Or the Lexus you drives
And though we’ve lost Biggie Smalls
Maybe your notorious revolution
Will never allow you to lace no lyrical douche in my bush
Your revolution will not be you killing me softly with fujees
Your revolution ain’t gonna knock me up without no ring
And  produce little future M.C.’s
Because that revolution will not happen between these thighs
Your revolution will not find me in the back seat of a jeep
With L.L. hard as hell, you know
Doing it and doing and doing it well, you know
Doing it and doing it and doing it well
Your revolution will not be you smacking it up, flipping it or rubbing it down
Nor will it take you downtown, or humping around
Because that revolution will not happen between these thighs
Your revolution will not have me singing
Ain’t no nigger like the one I got
Your revolution will not be you sending me for no drip drip V.D. shot
Your revolution will not involve me or feeling your nature rise
Or having you fantasize
Because that revolution will not happen between these thighs
No no not between these thighs
Uh-uh
My Jamaican brother
Your revolution will not make you feel bombastic, and really fantastic
And have you groping in the dark for that rubber wrapped in plastic
Uh-uh
You will not be touching your lips to my triple dip of
French vanilla, butter pecan, chocolate deluxe
Or having Akinyele’s dream, um hum
A six foot blow job machine, um hum
You wanna subjugate your Queen, uh-huh
Think I’m gonna put it in my mouth just because you
Made a few bucks,
Please brother please
Your revolution will not be me tossing my weave
And making me believe I’m some caviar eating ghetto
Mafia clown
Or me giving up my behind
Just so I can get signed
And maybe have somebody else write my rhymes
I’m Sarah Jones
Not Foxy Brown
You know I’m Sarah Jones
Not Foxy Brown
Your revolution makes me wonder
Where could we go
If we could drop the empty pursuit of props and the ego
We’d revolt back to our roots
Use a little common sense on a quest to make love
De la soul, no pretense, but
Your revolution will not be you flexing your little sex and status
To express what you feel
Your revolution will not happen between these thighs
Will not happen between these thighs
Will not be you shaking
And me, [sigh] faking between these thighs
Because the real revolution
That’s right, I said the real revolution
You know, I’m talking about the revolution
When it comes,
It’s gonna be real
It’s gonna be real
It’s gonna be real
When it finally comes
It’s gonna be real

In 2003, a more forgiving FCC, after hearing from Jones herself and the station, chose to rescind the fine.   Fortunately for KBOO, both the fine and the rescision were before the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Superbowl.  The public outrage which followed caused the FCC to jack up fines per violation from $32,000 to $350,000.  Such a fine would’ve been like a planet killing asteroid smashing through KBOO’s tiny 8th Avenue studio.

The FCC determined that community standards were not violated.  It is an example of how the law regarding obscenity, indecency and profanity, whether gratuitous or not, is and isn’t written in stone.  There may be several standards at work when stations chose to allow or restrict language that may or may not cost them big bucks, public support or both.

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Kill Your Darlings

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Hand Holding Knife

A programming genius I know is helping me crunch data that I’ve  been collecting for this book I’m writing about the public radio pledge drive.  The plan is that tranche A, after it’s washed and tumble dried, will be a template for tranche B; using one as a control for the other to find patterns that aren’t obvious.

I know a little about spreadsheets, and that’s how I gave my programmer friend the data I’d gathered.  But they weren’t exactly in love with it.  “You need to reformat this”, they said.  “Otherwise, I need to write a whole language subset (whatever that means) before you can see this data the way you want to see it.”  In other words, they didn’t like my spreadsheet.

I like to think I’m a smart person.  I like to think I’ve been around enough to know a little about a lot, but that little bit I know is really good.  Turns out, spreadsheets are high school level data collection to graduate level people writing programming in languages like Perl.  So, here I am, reformatting my spreadsheet in a way that my programming friend’s program can better search it, parce it, slice and dice it.

And you know, their way is better.

There isn’t as much ambiguity.  There’s much more consistency.  And I’m finding mistakes, not in the original data, but how I notated it.  It’s like when writers are taught to read their copy backwards as a way to catch mistakes because reading it forward makes it too easy to miss them.  Rearranging my twenty columns into their three is a brutal exercise in utility.  But it’s exactly the kind of brute force utilitarianism that a programming language needs to create elegant results.

“Kill your darlings” is what editors tell writers too in love with what they’re written.

I can tell you, programmers are even worse.

Written by Interviewer

June 25, 2016 at 07:34

When Staff Disappear

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Leaving Employee

“We thank X for his/her contributions here at W-whatever, and wish him/her the best in his/her future endeavors.”

How much more non-committal than that can an official statement announcing the departure of a broadcasting professional be?  I recently saw that language used and decided to Google phrase keywords to see just how much of a stock phrase it is.

Among the results at the top:
Freshman Guard – University of Iowa
Artistic Director – Rockford Dance Company
Offensive Coach – Sacramento Kings
Chief Operating Officer – Lands’ End
Chief Financial Officer – Intelsat
Senior Official – Jet Airways

Google showed 242,000 more results

Statements like this don’t hint at whether the person was fired or quit (the sanitized version of the latter is “resigned”).  Also, if the words “effective immediately” are high up in the statement, the goodbye was probably a bad one.

There seems to be a slight distinction between whether the person making the statement says “We” versus if they say “I”.  People who say “I” tend to add more personal details, such as how long they’ve know the departing person and what they might specifically do after they go.  And occasionally, these statements are very glowing.  The speaker gives a history of the person’s accomplishments, talks about how much they will be missed, and reminds their new employer of how lucky they are.

Of course, it’s hard to know the sincerity of any these unless the person who themselves is leaving is standing and smiling beside the person making the statement.  Unless it really feels like a friend and respected colleague is going away, you can bet everyone wants to get this part of turning the page over as quickly as possible.

Which is why, almost in the same breath, the speaker says something like, ‘Y will assume X’s duties temporarily”, followed by a description of Y’s qualifications.  Besides the obvious, “We want to return to normal operations as soon as possible”, another message might be “We’re will immediately begin working to erase this person’s memory from our institution and your head.”  Still, at least they merited a statement.  How many employees are shoved off the edge of their desks into a shredder never to even be acknowledged?

Of course, if they committed a crime, weren’t meeting a standard or needed to go because management felt they were poisoning the work atmosphere, that’s management call. I’m sure the employee would have a different opinion.  But it isn’t always so cut and dried.  Someone who works hard to get where they are probably doesn’t choose to blow it up.  And once a tide turns, there’s little they can do but let it wash them away.   But that’s why America is the land of rebirths.  A drone at a B-level job goes on to be a leader at an A-level job.  It happens everyday.

Still, leaving is hard.  Getting booted is harder and getting booted happens a lot.  At the beginning of an ending, this is all the public will ever know.  But when you hear this language, you know pretty much all you need to – something went very wrong and this person you’ve gotten to know is never, ever coming back.

Written by Interviewer

April 11, 2016 at 01:46

Exactly Who Are They Talking To?

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Polyglot

When I hear a political speech in English from a foreign politician or diplomat, I always wonder what is the intention of the message?  Who are they really talking to and what do they really want?  I mean, if the President of the United States intentionally speaks directly to the citizens of a foreign country through an interpreter, he is talking to them, not Americans.  When this happens, it’s usually to rally the people by talking around an oppressive regime or somehow repair a damaged American image.

Likewise, when I hear a foreign leader or representative speaking English when English is not one of their official languages, I conclude they are are not talking to their own people, they’re talking to Americans.  And then I wonder why?  There are plenty of examples of press conferences where someone from country X is talking to the world media, but the language they use is that of their own people.  Their own media doesn’t have to interpret.

But when they speak in English, the message is very different.  It’s directed to American politicans who direct America’s money and military and influence.  Or it’s directed at the American people who can be a soft touch for broad themes they’ve mined from our history like liberty or here recently, collective fear.  “This is not just a threat to us”, they like to say as if to say, “Support us if you know what’s good for you.”

Listeners need to listen close to what foreign leaders are saying or warning when they choose to speak in English.  It’s going to be significant to US foreign policy eventually.  At the same time, the dynamics of political speech aren’t that deep.  It’s just human interaction.  The level may be different but content and context aren’t much different.  Think of office cubicles with nuclear weapons and you’ve pretty much summed up the mundaneness of how people try to coerce each other on the geopolitical stage.

Written by Interviewer

January 13, 2015 at 06:35

Remarkable?

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Halo

Listening to a promo for an interview between Dave Miller on OPB’s “Think OutLoud” and incoming and outgoing Portland police chiefs, I was struck by something outgoing Chief Mike Reese said.  Mr. Miller asked him if he has seen a change in the use of force by Portland police during his more than four year tenure.  Paraphrasing Mr. Reese, he said he has seen a remarkable drop in force related incidents by the police against Portland’s citizens.

His use of the word, “remarkable” was what got my attention.  The definition of remarkable is “worthy of being or likely to be noticed, especially as being uncommon  or extraordinary”.  I think the first part of the definition applies.  The drop in the use of force by Portland police, if it has in fact occurred, is certainly worth noticing.  But the second part of the definition was bothersome.

“Uncommon” means “not ordinarily encountered” with a second definition being “remarkable and exceptional”.  Meanwhile “extraordinary” means “going beyond what is usual, regular or customary”.  Its second definition uses “remarkable” as a synonym.

I think you can see the problem here.

If Portland’s outgoing police chief considers “remarkable” the drop in the use of force by the Portland police, it makes me wonder what he and the Portland police consider “routine” treatment of those same citizens.  In other words, how rare should this be?  I mean, shouldn’t it be “remarkable” when an incident occurs rather than when one doesn’t occur?  To call a drop in the occurrence of something toxic “remarkable” implies that the drop was never expected and is, in fact, surprising.  And that speaks volumes to the problems currently orbiting police culture across the country.  This is one of those situations where I would’ve liked to see the interviewer ask what “remarkable” meant in that context.

And to that sentiment, I want to use an antonym.

Pitiful.

Police Talk

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police lights

Watching an interview with NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on CBS This Morning, I was reminded of how important it is for authorities to frame a discussion.

Mr. Bratton’s main and consistent response to the questions by Gail, Nora and Charlie about demonstrations in Ferguson was that unrest was caused by “professional agitators”.  The assumption he seems to be making is that legitimate demonstrations would never originate with local, grass roots frustration over perceived police injustice.  Apparently, according to the police chief, law abiding residents of a community don’t confront their own law enforcement for any legitimate reason and unrest in the streets is always the fault of outsiders.  Disturbance (as he told an NPR interviewer) of any kind doesn’t seem to be tolerable.  But isn’t even peaceful civil unrest a disturbance?  This basic disconnection between how police see the world and how people who feel victimized by the police seems to be one of the obvious and intractable problems between police and those who disagree with police policy.

By professional, I wonder if Mr. Bratton means people who are paid, or people who are considered experts such as, perhaps, Human Rights Watch?  And by agitators, does he mean people who are advising others on techniques for protest, not unlike (as he told the same NPR interviewer) the police NY sent to Missouri to advise and seek advice on how to deal with protestors?  Of course outsiders have axes to grind, leaders to taint and riots to incite.  Community leaders must scrupulously police their own ranks to insure protests are legitimate and effective.  But infiltrating protests is not just a technique for illegitimate demonstrator use.  Law enforcement agencies also have a history of using “professional agitators” for their own purposes.

BTW, Mr. Bratton never used the words “protestors” or “demonstrators” to describe anyone in any community who might be legitimately standing up against what they feel as unfair treatment by the police.  It is evidence that police departments, especially in high profile cities, are feeling under siege and their use of language is one of the tools they use to manage their own siege mentality.  It is the responsibility of media to compel them to precisely define their intentions and make clear their strategic use of tactical language.

Yes, No Thank You

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Confusion

Politicians is what makes politics interesting. Specificially, how they use language and perception to try to bend time, space and minds.  You can see this when, for example, a politician votes for or speaks on the behalf of something that they know has absolutely no chance of becoming law.  They may not even agree with it but dare not speak against it for fear of alienating a potential constitutiency.  So, they throw their support behind a sinking ship so they can say, “See, I support you” knowing they’re true intent is as safe as if it were in a mother’s arms.

You can see a version of this “yes means no” thinking sometimes when it comes to interviewing them.  You can try for weeks to interview someone.  And each time, they or their aide promptly send back a reply saying “I’ll be available in a few weeks”, or “Call and we’ll set something up” or “Give me some options”.  So, you wait, or you call or you propose.  And again, a prompt reply saying, “Still out of town” or “Sorry we missed you” or “Those won’t work for me”.  So you wait, or try again or suggest alternatives.  Strangely, nothing ever seems to work.  And yet, when you look at who’s never available versus who makes themselves available, it’s easy to wonder, “Hmmmm, A’s campaign or prospects don’t seem nearly as hectic as B’s, yet, B and me talked last week and A is still in the wind.  Curious”.

Then, when the prospect of a conversation is obviously off the table because of time or some other factor, there are emails of apology.  And in those moments come the easy realization that they never intended to talk with you.  But as a way of seeming accomodating, they stay in touch, respond promptly and are always polite but never available.  Politicians want love, even from people they won’t meet.  They really are experts at what they do even if the way some of them do it, sometimes, seems pretty unseemly.

Written by Interviewer

October 30, 2014 at 22:40