The Mast-Head: When Not to Offend

What may seem like no big thing to one person or editor may appear beyond the pale to another

    Here at The Star, we have a rule about using foul language or problematic material in print: It is okay as long as there is solid justification. This means that profanity is justified if, for example, an elected official drops an f-bomb or other offensive term on someone or something in a public meeting. If it were a gratuitous aside that neither advanced the story nor exposed the official’s antagonistic personality, there would be no reason to use it.

    Rules and standards about human behavior are not infallible, however; what may seem like no big thing to one person or editor may appear beyond the pale to another. It is a matter of judgment, perspective, and what may or may not also have been competing for attention at the time. Sometimes things get in the paper that shouldn’t. That’s the nature of a publication such as ours that generates volumes of news and opinion with a small staff.

    This is not to excuse something that appeared in The Star recently, which at least two readers got in touch with me about. They were rightly outraged by a column written by our Montauk correspondent, Janis Hewitt, which appeared to downplay offensive statements by a figure who appears on television’s “Duck Dynasty.” I regret printing the column and apologize for it now.

    In January, the show’s Phil Robertson made overtly racist and homophobic statements in a magazine interview. (For the curious, they appear in a letter from Matthew Belmont in this week’s edition.) The cable network that runs the program briefly suspended him after a public outcry, but the show has now gone on to a fifth season.

    Janis told me that she had not intended to minimize what Mr. Robertson had said and that she was sorry to have given that impression.

    Because I had not actually heard or read Mr. Robertson’s ranting words, the truth is I am not at all sure that I would have noticed how offensive the column might be. One person on our production staff, who was familiar with what he had said, told me after the fact that she had read the column before it was published and was taken aback. She could not say why she had not brought it to my attention, and I asked her to be sure to speak up in the future.