From Our Newscaster: A Debate About Covering "Dirty Santa"

John Toomey in The Tonight Show green room. Photo NBC/NBCU

It's interesting: sometimes a little thing can become a BIG thing!  Case in point: a soundbite in this morning's KQED News about the Macy's Santa Claus who lost his job, sparked quite a debate in our newsroom. 

John Toomey got fired from the Macy’s in downtown San Francisco after an adult couple complained about an off-color joke he told them. Toomey has since been hired to work at Lefty O'Douls pub, posing for Santa pictures and saying what he wants. I found a soundbite from last night's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" where Toomey appears as Santa, telling three jokes. 

(Watch Toomey's appearance in Leno's monologue here.)

From that I pulled one to air in the newscast, as part of a story that lasted 45 seconds or so. But my instincts said, "Eh... ask your editor first!"  So I did... which sparked an intense discussion about verbiage, taste, editorial judgment and (here's where you come in) the nature of our audience.

So... how far is too far?

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I argued that the potentially offensive joke (which did not air; we picked a different one from the monologue that was not risqué) was representative of the joke that got Toomey fired. I didn't mind replacing it with something cleaner, but I felt it necessary to preface that he told three jokes: only one of which “seemed polite enough for public radio.” If we don't air a joke that's even a little raw, then the soundbite wouldn't give context to the behavior that led to the firing. No need to be extreme, of course, but we ought to air something comparable.

The counterargument, which prevailed: we ought not portray listeners as "polite" or presume what people want to hear, but we must also be careful not to air potentially offensive material during our morning drive-time newscasts. Parents with young children, for example, could be listening, and they may not want to explain a dirty joke to their kids after hearing it on NPR! Besides, we can explain the story, air a cleaner joke from the monologue, and remove any language that might presume prudishness or hyper-sensitivity to that kind of material.

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What do you think? What is your tolerance level for stories that may shock, offend or unnerve? We have no interest in turning into the Morning Zoo, I assure you! But news organizations battle all the time over how to present the world as it is, without being so raw that they turn their audience away.

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