The C-word in the newsroom, but not the newspaper

In the punch heard throughout the media world, a revered Washington Post editor and writer punches out a younger co-worker after the co-worker says “Don’t be such a cocksucker.”  The editor–Henry Allen–is asked not to return to the newsroom and the taunter, Manuel Roig-Franzia, remains at the paper.

In today’s WaPo, columnist Kathleen Parker retold the story but the word “cocksucker” was replaced with a “[bleep]”  Now, I’m not saying that it’s a word that needs to show up in the paper.  In fact, arguably it shouldn’t. But it is curious how little attention has been paid to the schoolyard taunt “cocksucker” compared to the chatter about the punch in response and the larger meaning about passion in journalism. It’s also curious that it’s a term that goes uncommented on in the newsroom–okay, it did result in a punch–but is considered too provocative for the paper itself.

In Gawker, of all places, the issue of the homophobic taunt was raised with a level of seriousness unusual for the gossip site by Hamilton Nolan.

It’s a slur because it was meant to be a slur. Why not ask Manuel why in the world he would use “cocksucker” as anything less than a term of endearment? Outrageous! A slur is not rendered moot to the average testosterone-filled male simply because it’s true. I may be ugly, but I don’t want it pointed out to me.

Nolan was responding to a post by WaPo television critic Hank Stuever who wrote about the battle on his personal blog, replacing the c-word with “coughstucker.”

My only other angle to the story is this: What made Henry snap was that a writer called him a naughty word, an epithet that rhymes with “coughstucker” and is playfully or spitefully reserved as a way to insult a man, by implying he’s gay.

Being an enthusiastic coughstucker myself, I would someday like to ask Henry if it was the insulting delivery of the word, or the subtext of gayness that the word implies that angered him most? Seeing as how our department is gleefully R-rated in much of its casual discourse, it’s hard to know. (The worst thing about all this? The possibility that we could all get hauled into a sensitivity seminar. Not Henry, of course, he’s outta there, but the rest of us. To which I say FUCK THAT, oops, I mean, aw hell, no.)

Back to my question: Was it about the person who said it? The way he said it? Or that it was said at all? If another person in Style called me a coughstucker, I’d just have to shrug and use the Popeye retort: I am what I am.

Stuever’s comments got the attention of Washington Examiner gossip columnist Tara Palmeri who asked whether Steuver was implying Allen was homophobic.

I, in no way, think Henry is a homophobe,” the Post reporter told Yeas & Nays. “I just wonder why straight men say that to straight men,” he added.

He said he wrote the blog post because he was interested in the language of Friday’s newsroom argument at Post, which pitted Allen and Roig-Franzia against each other, and got so much media attention that it warranted a video re-enactment from the Washington City Paper’s staff.

“It’s more of a semantics thing,” he continued.

It would never occur to me to wonder whether Allen was homophobic. The more interesting question is what was the intent of Roig-Franzia. Why isn’t anyone speculating about why he used the term to begin with, turning the newsroom into a junior high school playground? I agree with Stuever that it’s interesting why the term was used, but I’m more curious about Roig-Franzia’s thinking, not Allen’s.

The term “cocksucker” is a homophobic taunt that is wrong in the locker room and the playground, but is especially wrong for the workplace. Public figures get in trouble for using homophobic terms that are arguably less offensive.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think WaPo necessarily needs to implement a “sensitivity seminar” that Stuever dreads. I don’t think the WaPo is a hotbed of homophobia. I doubt that Roig-Franzia is homophobic. But it is curious how little attention the taunt–and the taunter–have gotten in the retelling of the story.

2 Responses

  1. This has nothing to do with the incident, but brings to mind the only other connection I can recall between the Washington Post and “cocksucker.”

    During Watergate, President Nixon ordered Elliot Richardson to dismiss special prosecutor Archibald Cox. He refused to, and resigned. Richardson’s’ successor, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox, and also resigned. Eventually Solicitor General Robert Bork (!), the highest-ranking member left in the Justice Department, fired Cox, saying he didn’t want to but he had to obey the
    president.

    Anti-Nixon bumper stickers sprouted, saying “Impeach the Cox-sacker.”

    Accurate? No. Funny? Sure. A tenuous connection with the Post, “cocksucker” and the current contretemps? You bet.

  2. I should have noted that Richardson was Attorney General, and Ruckelshaus was his second in command.

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