UPI’s Editor-in-Chief Rang Me Up Almost Instantly: “Take That Off the Wire!”

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George Carlin’s comedy routines won five Grammy Awards and a 1978 trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of georgecarlin.com.

By Ron Cohen

Remember back when nobody had heard of the Kardashians? Back before R-rated movies and cable TV made words like “tits” and “motherfucker” household words?

I do, and this is the story about how I decided to put those words and five others like them into a news story aimed at the world’s front pages.

In 1972, standup comic George Carlin did a monologue titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” He then said them, in this order: “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.”

The following year, when Pacifica radio station WBAI played the “Seven Words” monologue—it was on a Carlin LP record—Morality in Media stalwart John Douglas filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, saying the Carlin routine should not be broadcast at a time of day children were awake. The complaint morphed into a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department sided with WBAI, saying that the FCC’s declaratory ruling against Carlin’s words violated the First Amendment, and that its definition of “decency” was too vague to satisfy the due process protections of the Fifth Amendment.

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the FCC’s rules did not violate those amendments, but declined to consider the scope of the commission’s definition of “decency.” It didn’t exactly open the floodgates for broadcasting profanity, but things then loosened up quite a bit.

I was Washington News Editor for United Press International, and when the court ruled I filed it. We put on our main news wire an advisory that warned 1,200 or so newspaper clients that a story was about to move with language some may find objectionable.

Then the urgent story we sent contained another cautionary note on top, and two more before and after the paragraph containing the seven words. We concluded with another caution about the “offending” paragraph, and capped the whole thing off with a separate “Heads-up!” advisory.

The number of warnings and noise level of the teletype bells all this generated in newspaper offices would have roused Rip Van Winkle.

I sat back to await the shit storm.

It didn’t take long. H.L. Stevenson, UPI’s editor-in-chief based in New York, rang me up almost instantly.

“What the #@%* are you doing?” he said. “Take that off the wire!”

“This is the Supreme Court, Steve,” I said. “It is precedent-setting. Without those words there would be no court case and no story.”

“Take it off!” he said.

“It’s absolutely crucial to both the court decision and the story,” I said. “You have the authority to do it yourself. And you will have to, because I won’t.” I hung up.

To my surprise he let it stand, and called back 20 minutes later to acknowledge my point. So far as I know, no papers included the words in their stories, intentionally or inadvertently, and only one editor called UPI to complain.

I was interviewed by Editor & Publisher magazine, which included in its story an explanation from the Associated Press why it had decided not to offer the words. They always were more cautious than UPI. (Many Unipressers often employed Carlin’s words as adjectives in speaking of the AP, then our bitter rivals.)

Even 35 years later, broadcast networks generally avoid the most virulent profanity. But if you are offended by profanity, you’d better employ earplugs if you go to the movies or watch cable TV.

And if you want to hear Carlin himself, Google “Seven Dirty Words” and it will take you to YouTube faster than you can say #$%^&*.
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Ron Cohen is a retired journalist who worked for United Press International for 25 years and for Gannett News Service for 15.

Comments

  1. Tim Hays says

    Great retrospective– especially Stevenson’s phone reaction!

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