News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal is shaking the foundation of a worldwide media empire. But it’s also raising ethical questions about journalism techniques employed by mainstream outlets in the United States — including some of the techniques used by Watergate reporters. We chat with Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple about the global implications of this rapidly evolving story.


  • Erik Wemple Media Writer, The Washington Post


  • 13:30:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back, cursing, trash talk and disrespect and that's just the Cartoon Network. Are we surprised that kids today talk and behave the way they do? Parents, cable television and our squabbling political leaders are teaching kids valuable lessons, but they're not always the lessons we'd like them to learn. On the other hand, what was considered profanity a few decades ago sounds pretty mild today. Societies and languages are always changing and kids will always be at the front of that curve.

  • 13:30:53

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhether our values are changing along with how we talk, is another discussion. Joining us to discuss that, in studio, is Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the Howard County Library system. Valerie Gross, good to see you, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:07

    MS. VALERIE GROSSThanks, Kojo.

  • 13:31:08

    NNAMDIJoining us by telephone from New Jersey is John McWhorter. He teaches at Columbia University and is a contributing editor at The New Republic and City Journal. He is the author of "What Language is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be)." John McWhorter, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:24

    MR. JOHN MCWHORTERThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:31:25

    NNAMDIJohn, we talk a lot about civility in politics but it seems that our society in general is less respectful or is that simply perception and not reality?

  • 13:31:36

    MCWHORTERWell, obviously there is a polarization in terms of the tone of political debate. And I think that that has a lot to do with the internet and particularly broadband and YouTube and what kind of language it encourages. And specifically, we're returning to an oral language kind of context, rather than the primarily written one that we had before.

  • 13:32:00

    MCWHORTERAnd as a result, we're going to have punchier speech. We're going to have more emotional speech because we're talking about less reflective kinds of language than was technologically the norm in, say, 1950 when so much more of it was written and you couldn't make a speech and have it available to the entire nation one second later. So certainly there is that.

  • 13:32:20

    NNAMDIThe media environment has clearly become less civil. We've got cable television shout fests and profane language and everything from animated shows like "South Park" to music lyrics. Is it realistic not to expect children to reflect that?

  • 13:32:36

    MCWHORTERI think that it is quite unrealistic to expect children not to use the kinds of words which, as you said, are now becoming ordinary rather than profane. I think we have to change our lens. Instead of saying children are using more profanity these days, I think, more realistically, the way we should think of it is what is profane in our language is changing and words that were taught to apply the label profane to are now perhaps vulgar, but that's something rather different. We still have profanity.

  • 13:33:07

    MCWHORTERThese are words that children are not using a whole lot more than they were using before. These are the words that really do scare us down to our socks. All human beings have profanity, it's just that, what our profanity is now is different than it was 100 or even, at this point, 30 years ago.

  • 13:33:21

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, call us at 800-433-8850 or you can send an e-mail to, a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website Do you think that profanity is too common today, in general and among kids in particular? What about adults? 800-433-8850. John, you made a distinction between profanity and vulgarity. What is the distinction? Is it a distinction without a difference?

  • 13:33:50

    MCWHORTERWell, it's not a distinction without a difference because I think what worries us is, for example, that a certain four letter word that begins with F or another one that begins with S are ones that young people seem to be much more casual about using now then they would've been, certainly, two generations ago and maybe even one. One way to look at that is to say, my goodness, these children are cursing so much.

  • 13:34:12

    MCWHORTERBut if we actually listen to the way they use these words, i.e., quite casually, often with smiles on their faces, often to signal in group warmth or just to lend a bit of color or highlight to a statement, we see that these are terms which certainly you're not going to use in a formal speech. But can we really say that these words are bad words anymore when, let's face it, we, ourselves, even if we're rather buttoned-up people and regardless of educational level, often use those words all the time whether or not we want to admit it in a way that our parents, when they were our age, would not have?

  • 13:34:47

    MCWHORTERThe profanity is, to put it briefly, the N word. They're the words that begin with F, that has six letters instead of four. That one is not to use. The collection is small. Those are the words that truly frighten us that we really do not use even at, say, a cocktail party after a couple of drinks. That's what profanity is. That's what the other little words I mentioned used to be, but they're not now. And I think we have to observe that rather than pretending that language doesn't change.

  • 13:35:13

    NNAMDIDo you think that the F word and the S word are no longer profane? Call us 800-433-8850 or do you think they are? Valerie Gross, kids, of course, learn from what they see and hear, so parents and society as a whole contribute to the tone as well. In Howard County, you and some colleagues saw a place for a discussion on civility among adults. Tell us about that.

  • 13:35:35

    GROSSWell, actually, it's an initiative for all ages. It is called Choose Civility. It launched in 2007. It is based on Dr. Forni's book "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct." Dr. Forni is a professor at the -- at Johns Hopkins University. It was inspired by his book, I should say. And what it is, it's an invitation for our community to choose civility in all situations, in their work lives and in their personal lives. And it has really caught on and we have ways to keep the initiative visible throughout the community.

  • 13:36:10

    GROSSWe have a car magnet that says -- it used to say Choose Civility in Howard County, now it says Choose Civility - Howard County because somebody quipped and said, well, if I drive across the county line into Baltimore County, I don't have to be civil anymore.

  • 13:36:21

    NNAMDINo need to be civil anymore.

  • 13:36:22

    GROSSRight. So we listened and that's one of the things we do as civil people, we listen and so we took off in. So we have these magnets -- we have now 65,000 on cars and they are local, regional. I think I've seen some here in D.C. We've seen some in many of the United States, even in British Columbia. But children in particular pay attention to this. And we...

  • 13:36:43

    NNAMDIYeah, you think that kids and parents are actually pretty passionate about this issue and that some are concerned about what they see is -- as a loss of civility.

  • 13:36:52

    GROSSYes. I would agree with what John McWhorter has said about the internet and YouTube and simply the new technology that has perhaps exacerbated the situation. There was an article that I was just incredulous after I read it. It was "As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch Up." It was in the New York Times, December 4, 2010. It's about how bullying has really taken on a new level of concern with this anonymity, whereby someone spots a child who is perhaps alone or at school and creates a Facebook page in that child's name.

  • 13:37:28

    GROSSThe child has no idea what it is. And then they join friends. They know -- typically they know each other and then they say mean things about other kids and then at school they would say well, D.C., why are you saying such mean things?" And of course, D.C. had no idea and so -- just the cruelty and so the parents...

  • 13:37:44

    NNAMDIWell, Howard County schools had put together a civility policy specifically aimed at bullying and other behavior. You created a program in local schools to bring the campaign there. Tell us about that.

  • 13:37:56

    GROSSThe school system is one of our major partners. And they clearly have a reason to be a major partner. They have academic as one of their mission -- their mission includes academics and also safe and nurturing environments. So civility is part of their culture at their school that they would like to cultivate and so they weave civility in. And they actually have a civility policy, as you mentioned. They also have an anti-bullying policy. And they're working with us for our symposium on October 5.

  • 13:38:24

    GROSSIt's going to be called "Building a Responsible Bully Free Community." So they're very much involved with this, as is the community college, another major partner. We have a 100 alliance partners, by the way, in Choose Civility. But they are working with their -- within their school system to keep civility very much on the forefront and in the discussion.

  • 13:38:45

    NNAMDIJohn McWhorter, I'd be interested in what you see as the relationship between civility and profanity, whether we can be profane and still be civil at the same time or whether Howard County, like Don Quixote, may be tilting at windmills in a culture that's moved beyond civility.

  • 13:39:02

    MCWHORTERWe can certainly talk about civility. We can certainly nip around the edges and then some. Certainly, for example, we don't want to sit and watch this kind of vicious bullying and pretend that that's the best that a human society can do. But I think that we need to do that with a viewed understanding that, there has always been a difference between the oral and the written. And spoken language has always been hotter and less reflective and punchier than the coolness of written language.

  • 13:39:33

    MCWHORTERAnd that we're now in a society where through, for example, Facebook as well as YouTube and various other -- and Twitter, in terms of the brevity, even though it's not about actually speaking with the vocal organ. We're in a society where we can talk to each other all the time. We've become a large village. And that almost sounds like a cliché at this point, but linguistically, this is a seismic kind of difference. And what that means is that you're going to have, for example, a Sarah Palin saying something like, don't retreat, reload.

  • 13:40:02

    MCWHORTERThat's spoken language. That's the way people speak to one another in a room amidst warm supportive kinds of feelings. People are colorful. She wouldn't have had any venue in which to say something like that that would've caught such fire in 1950 because you couldn't have her talk to you every day in any kind of format.

  • 13:40:20

    MCWHORTERSo we're going to see something which we might want to call less civil. But I think what it really is it's just that we can all talk to each other. And we've none of us been as civil when we're speaking casually, especially with any degree of comfort, as we may have thought.

  • 13:40:35

    NNAMDIValerie, how do you talk to kids about civility?

  • 13:40:38

    GROSSWe weave civility into our own curriculum. So we have any number of children's classes and we have classes for our younger children that we count under civility, and we talk about kindness and sharing. We have one class that we teach for second graders called Kindness Counts. It focuses on Laurie Keller's book "Do Onto Otters." Otter and Rabbit is the story and they live next door to each other and Otter doesn't like Rabbit's habits. And then Rabbit talks about all the things that he would like Otter to be. Play fairly, be friendly, share and it's actually values and manners together.

  • 13:41:19

    GROSSAnd so it teaches the kids that -- we perform this book and then we engage them in a discussion afterwards. And they are very much engaged throughout. It is wonderful to watch this discussion because then they talk about how inappropriate it is to push people in the hallway and to say kind words to each other to make our lives better because we are together, as opposed to make each other -- making each other unhappy. They understand the power that we have over each other on a daily basis. So it's a -- it's a positive optimistic kind of discussion that we have with them.

  • 13:41:50

    GROSSBut we have incredibly challenging kids to deal with in the public arena at the library system, and this would apply to any public library. The kids come in, they hear the profanity at home, they use it with us and they think that's just fine. And so we have to help them understand that this will not be acceptable and it is inappropriate. And I think it's probably escalated over the last couple of years.

  • 13:42:13

    NNAMDIWell, John McWhorter, some people think our language is deteriorating. I guess you would say it's evolving. But does that say anything about our behavior? Do you think how we talk reflects deeper values? Because this is a comment we got from Terence who said, "Can we please calm down? Fifty years ago, civilized adults proudly and publicly practiced bigotry and other forms of behavior that we would consider uncivilized, sometimes under the guise of manners and the social order." John McWhorter.

  • 13:42:43

    MCWHORTERWell, I think that one thing that we have to think about here is that we are in general a more informal society. There are a whole lot of vectors that are playing against each other in this way. And I think that our increasing informality is something that a lot of people consider a good thing, particularly during, for example, a heat wave such as the one we're enduring right now, which is why I did not come into a studio to do this interview. We do not have to wear those multiple layers of clothing that somebody would've had to even 50 years ago. The men don't have to wear hats, et cetera.

  • 13:43:15

    MCWHORTERAnd so in clothing, we think of it that way. In terms of what our music is like, in many ways we think of less buttoned-up music that we have, as opposed to the kinds of songs Frank Sinatra sang, as a good thing. We cherish what happened with the counter culture in the '60s. But something that comes along with it is how we use language.

  • 13:43:33

    MCWHORTERAnd I think to the extent that we look at the morays of 50 years ago -- and certainly not the bigotry, which is a different issue, but if we look at the morays of 50 years ago and think of those people as uptight, Wonder Bread, stricture, pre-counter culture, not cool, not as interesting as the Boomers, then we have to understand that what comes along with our unbuttoning is a much less cosseted sense of what kind of language we're going to use with each other even when we don't know each other very well and even when we're outside of our houses.

  • 13:44:04

    MCWHORTERI think of consistency, which is why, for example, I am really not sure that I'm going to be telling my future children that it makes them bad people to start using exactly the words that they're going to hear my wife and me using whenever they're halfway out of earshot.

  • 13:44:19

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation on civility in general and civility and children in particular. If you've already called stay on the line, we'll try to get to your call. In the meantime the number is 800-433-8850 or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:28

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on civility and kids. We're talking with Valerie Gross, President and CEO of the Howard County Library system and John McWhorter. He teaches at Columbia University and is a Contributing Editor at the New Republic and City Journal. He's the author of "What Language Is (And What It Isn't, And What It Could Be)." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Let me go directly to the telephones to Mike in Alexandria, Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:46:58

    MIKEThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I think one thing to be made clear here is that the over usage of some of these words, whether they're profane in other generations or not, basically weakens the words. And it's not so much the choice of words, as new curse words will develop or disappear over time. It's the tone in which people are conducting themselves, especially in politics and in business. People are personally aggressive with somebody just because they disagree with them, to insult their intelligence or to insult their family, if only what they really mean is, I think differently from you.

  • 13:47:31

    NNAMDISo you think that the over use of these words weakens their impact and therefore, I guess I am inferring from what you say, they should not necessarily be considered profane any longer?

  • 13:47:42

    MIKEYeah, I'm not too bothered by the constant level of cussing I hear, especially from children. It's not the actual language that they use. It's when they get into racial epithets or gay bashing or any of these sort of like personally destructive speech. That's when it really starts to matter. And the reason they're getting that is because it's totally acceptable because you see the Speaker of the House and Keith Olbermann calls people the worst people in the world and stuff.

  • 13:48:14

    NNAMDISo that's -- you underscore the point that John McWhorter has been making, correct, John?

  • 13:48:18

    MCWHORTERYeah, that really -- that hits it on the head. It's really very simple. The idea that the F word with four letters and the S word with four letters and some others are profane is based on an idea that we're uptight about excretion and sex. And you know what, especially for the past 40, 45 years, we almost pride ourselves on not being. Those are old taboos that we associate with perhaps our grandparents and people before. So we're so proud that we're beyond being hung up on excrement and sex then, of course, those words become not profane.

  • 13:48:52

    MCWHORTERWhat we are hung up about and should be, in other words what our taboo is, profanity's based on taboos. Our taboo is about race and increasingly sexual orientation. We're upset about those things. We're sensitive about them. Those are the bad words. Those are the ones that my children certainly will not be saying freely or if at all. So I don't see children using more profanity. I see what was once considered profanity changing. Everything's the same as it was in 1950. We just have different taboos.

  • 13:49:21

    NNAMDIValerie Gross, in looking at civility, do you think that being more polite in our speech can actually cause us to behave better, can actually have us look at things like fairness and discrimination differently?

  • 13:49:35

    GROSSI think so. I think it does have an effect on behavior. What I was thinking about, though, is that my son, who's now 21, I have no doubts that he uses all of those profane terms.

  • 13:49:48

    NNAMDIBut never in front of you.

  • 13:49:49

    GROSSNot in front of me. At job interviews, I know that he does not use those terms because we have taught him that it is inappropriate. It is going to send this kind of message. It will show to your perspective employer that you simply are not as intelligent and you can't think of another adjective. Instead, say a better, smarter adjective and you will appear to be more intelligent. So it's an effect on the speaker.

  • 13:50:09

    GROSSBut I think in certain circles with his buddies, with his friends, it's okay to do that. And I think that we each have our own language that we might use with various groups and I think we need to teach our children that that's the case. And certain children aren't learning that clearly by their behavior in public and with others. And so I think that we have perhaps been a society where we have been spending less time with our children perhaps because we don't eat dinner together as much as we might have 20 years ago. I know I ate dinner every night with my parents when I was growing up. And I know that my husband and I and our son probably used to eat dinner maybe a handful of times a week and that was it.

  • 13:50:51

    NNAMDIJohn, let me ask you a question in two parts. The first part being, talk about the difference between how we talk in public and how we talk in private. And hold that answer for a second because I'd like to read to you two pieces of e-mail we got. The first from Emerson in Burke, Va. who says, "I've certainly used an expletive now and then, but each time I do I hear my mother's voice in my head saying, there are so many other colorful words one could use. There's something exciting about cuss words when you're young. They even feel forbidden in your mouth as you say them, but I think my mother is right and I'm glad she helped me to understand the effect of the words I chose -- I choose to use and the way they define me."

  • 13:51:29

    NNAMDIAnd then, there's this e-mail from Doug. "I think your guest is far too excusing of his willingness to tolerate the habit of using language which is now, and has always been considered profane. This sad state of affairs should not be so casually dismissed as somehow modern and normal. I can assure you that the mainstream population does not appreciate this degrading and irritating moral degeneracy. It is not acceptable and should never be tolerated as somehow the new normal." What do you say to those, John McWhorter?

  • 13:52:02

    MCWHORTERWell, for the final e-mail, those are declarations and I certainly understand where they come from, but I'm not sure what the source is of the idea that the mainstream disapproves. It would appear that mainstream sentiment on the kind of potty words that I'm talking about very much is changing. That's the subject of this show. And it's not a matter of looking at modern things and just declaring that it's a new normal out of taking a joy in novelty and informality. And I think anybody who's familiar with any of my work on particularly race and culture knows that I'm not exactly somebody who is as easy as most people are with novelty and with unbuttoning.

  • 13:52:45

    MCWHORTERI'm known as a rather starchy person and in many ways I am. However, I do think that we can look at these things in a taxonomic way and look at the fact that what is considered profane in any language or society does change. And to realize that we are speaking the language and we are humans in a society.

  • 13:53:00

    MCWHORTERAs far as the comment before, well, certainly there is something to be said for choosing words carefully when you want to express an extreme feeling. But language -- spoken language is, to a large extent, an unconscious activity and it always will be. And in terms of our complete online, unconscious, everyday, while-we're-eating, while-we're-driving language, there are going to be words that come to mind more immediately than the rather considered ones that we might come up with when we're working at being articulate.

  • 13:53:33

    MCWHORTERAnd so in terms of that casual bag of language that we use, just like the words of and then and with, there are going to be certain established words. And those are the ones that used to be considered profane, but I think now are really just increasingly casual vulgar, especially in the older use of the word vulgar. But...

  • 13:53:52

    NNAMDIBut is there a certain blurring of the distinction between what we would say in private and what we would say in public? Was there a time when that distinction was much more clear?

  • 13:54:01

    MCWHORTERYes. Distinction, and that's what you originally asked. That distinction used to be much clearer. That was a time when our current informality was much less advanced in society. I wrote a book about this called "Doing Our Own Thing" back in '03. But today, that line between public and private is blurring because we consider ourselves and pride ourselves, many of us, perhaps not the person who did the last e-mail, on our increasing informality.

  • 13:54:29

    MCWHORTERAnd what goes along with it is uses of language that used to be more typical of the private sphere, to the extent that they were -- coming into the public sphere and with the technology that we're talking about that's certainly a fact every time you fire up your laptop. And this is not a matter of me cheering for changes coming along just 'cause they're new, the use of technology that cannot be reversed. And as far as the increasing informality to the extent that I think most of the mainstream public thinks of that as a good thing in many ways, we have to question why we would resist that informality happening in language as well.

  • 13:55:02

    NNAMDIHere now is Bill in Kensington, Md. Hi, Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:08

    BILLHi there. Good afternoon, Kojo. Love your show. I'm 52 years old and I remember when I was 10 or 11, I spent the summers down with my grandparents. They were born in the 1890s and I never remember hearing my grandmother curse and yet she could speak very intelligently and very expressively. And, you know, she used to chide me, you know, not to ever use the Lord's name in vain. And I think the whole thing with cursing and what seems to be a growing acceptance of it, part of it's linked to TV and the media. I mean, I don't really watch much television, but occasionally I will see some and some of the language and behavior that I see on there, I think, is just unbelievable. (Unintelligible) ...

  • 13:56:04

    NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up because everybody seems to agree that videos and TV and music with what you would consider to be cursing or foul language are a part of that. And, Valerie Gross, there are just so many ways to access media these days. Do you think that trying to keep kids away from it, even if parents wanted to, is even possible anymore?

  • 13:56:28

    GROSSIt's very hard. They can certainly get around anything that you try to do to put any kind of parameters around them. For a while it might work, but I'm thinking about last night. I was watching "South Park" with my son, who again is now 21, and it was just hilarious. It was just the worst show. It's just so raunchy and so -- it was poking fun at everything and just terrible. But the reason it's funny -- and I was able to watch it with him and laugh with him because he knows it's wrong.

  • 13:56:55

    GROSSAnd we have -- it was just the irony, and they're actually teaching civility in one sense because the only reason it's funny is because it's so opposite of what the characters actually do and say. And we all know when we watch it that it's just inappropriate behavior, inappropriate things to say. And I don't think it has an adverse affect on a child who has grown up in a household where they know right from wrong and the differences. I suppose that if a child grows up in a household where the parents do things that are uncivil to each other and to others, than perhaps a true civility initiative...

  • 13:57:34

    NNAMDIAlmost out of time. John McWhorter, is language changing faster now than it used to?

  • 13:57:41

    MCWHORTERYeah, that's a question that is difficult to answer because it depends on what aspects of language. But I would be inclined to say yes because especially nowadays we can all talk to one another 24/7. And so trends happen quickly and they crest quickly and then the new thing comes along.

  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDIJohn McWhorter teaches at Columbia University. He's a Contributing Editor at The New Republic and City Journal. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:06

    MCWHORTERThank you for having me.

  • 13:58:06

    NNAMDIHis latest book is called "What Language Is (And What It Isn't, And What It Could Be)." Valerie Gross is President and CEO of the Howard County Library system. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:14

    GROSSMy pleasure.

  • 13:58:15

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, Menghan Hu, Caitlin Langfitt and Maggie Lafalce, whose last day is today. Good luck to you, Maggie. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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