“A couple of years ago I got in trouble for ‘hand job.’ In a quote.”
— Emily Bazelon, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, 2017.
Two years later how things have changed, as demonstrated by this letter we uncovered from Arthur. G. Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher.
Mr. Christopher A. Wray
Federal Bureau of Investigation
So good to hear from you, especially since the envelope didn’t contain a subpoena. Heaven knows, the lawyers went through it twice. They were as surprised as I was.
How are the wife and kids? I’m impressed with the way you keep them out of the public eye. Not like my family. Grandpa dragged all of us in front of photographers when we were infants. But you, it’s almost as if your family is in witness protection. Or shouldn’t I ask?
I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the tone of your letter. It was awfully lawyerly. I thought our relationship was beyond that. However, since you brought it up I feel duty bound to correct the record.
First of all, our decision to use “those words,” as Grandmum would have called them, was not entirely ours. As the nation’s newspaper of record, we hold a mirror up to society. If society doesn’t like what it sees, our only responsibility is to clean the mirror. (By the way, Windex and crumpled pages from our Arts section do a first class job of that.)
The Monica Lewinsky case brought the word “penis” to our pages. Don’t ask about that dust up. I remember Pops coming home one night and asking Mum if “the body part involved in circumcision” was a reasonable substitute. She said only if the byline belonged to Alex Trebek.
If there’s anyone to complain to, it’s your boss’s boss. Even if we were prone to put words in his mouth (we’re not), our managing editor would have insisted on, “That’s the end of my presidency. I’m the past tense of a vulgar term for sexual intercourse.”
But’s let get to the heart of the matter.
Why is it our fault if some of your agents find today’s cut-and-paste ransom notes offensive? Your basic ransomer could have used vulgarities any time in the past. The idea that by making it unnecessary to spell out “those words” letter by letter we are lowering the quality of ransom note discourse is an assertion totally unsupported by the facts.
I think you will find general agreement among social scientists that ransomers have long harbored a secret desire toward vulgarity, but only now that your boss’s boss has given them permission have they felt comfortable incorporating “those words” in their writings.
Kick the blame upstairs. The private sector does it all the time.
(You might point out to your agents that our type font, on which we’ve spent upwards of a million dollars in development, gives a clean look to those dirty words. It would be nice to give us a little credit for, if nothing else, raising ransom notes’ visual appeal.)
Since you are a senior law enforcement official, do I need to remind you that everything in our newspaper is copyrighted? Using any of it for ransom notes is a violation of the law. While you’re throwing the book at these people, you might want to tack on a chapter or two about that.
Also tell them they are in breach our terms of service and, upon conviction, we will cancel their subscriptions.
Maybe you weren’t counting on my reading your letter to the end, but I assume that your PS, in which you claim to have first discovered “those words” in our pages while lining your parakeet’s cage, was an attempt at humor.
It doesn’t suit you, Chris. Maintaining a secret file on me doesn’t give you the right to be insulting.
And, by the way, my Bureau nickname isn’t very flattering. Iron Man or Gray Hair, maybe. But Gray Lady’s Man? Honestly? What if I started using your old college nickname. Would you still answer to Doodles? (We have secret files, too.)
Better yet, what if I sent you a ransom letter? “Hand over a million bucks or we publish ‘Doodles’ all over the front page and your career is f’ed.” Only I’ll use the whole word. It’s no problem at all. I’m sure I can find a copy of our April 18th edition on my coffee table.
Give my best to your wife.
A. G. Sulzberger
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