An editor in Kansas said, 'Bobbitt rhymes I dread'

December 08, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

This is a defense of Ann Kennett-Charles, editor and publisher of a small daily newspaper, the Parsons Sun, in Parsons, Kan.

Ms. Kennett-Charles has been accused of something editors dread: censorship.

As she says: "I'm getting flak from all kinds of people. People think I'm censoring the news."

She says she has been berated by journalism students and even civic leaders in her city of about 12,000.

The fuss began a week ago when she learned that a wave of excitement seemed to be sweeping over her employees.

A syndicated column had been transmitted to the paper. The employees were reading it and, as she says:

"People in the composing room were making copies left and right and stuffing them in their pockets to take home. The whole staff was getting hold of it. Our managing editor called me, and I knew that was a major red flag going off."

The column that created the stir was mine. It was the first of the two now-infamous limerick columns I wrote about the Bobbitt case.

Ms. Kennett-Charles read the column and had two reactions:

1. She thought the limericks were funny.

2. She thought the limericks were crude.

Actually, that's an appropriate reaction to limericks. The late Isaac Asimov, the science-fiction genius, also was an authority on limericks. And he said a good limerick should be risque.

But Asimov wasn't an editor in Parsons, Kan., where the average age is 44, most people go to church, and they vote for Bob Dole.

As such an editor, Ms. Kennett-Charles had to make a decision.

Most weeks, her paper runs two of my columns. But could she run columns made up of raunchy limericks about Mrs. Bobbitt wielding her knife and doing that terrible thing to her clunk of a husband?

What would the good folks of Parsons think if they picked up their paper and read:

"Big John Bobbitt might have been hipper

"Had he kept his hot hands from his zipper."

Ms. Kennett-Charles made an astute decision. She decided not to run the column.

By doing so, she conformed to what she believes are the moral and journalistic standards of her community.

"My feeling was that it was the kind of thing you get over the water fountain at work, not in your newspaper. . . . Newspapers have a responsibility to their readers to help maintain social standards."

I can't quarrel with that. Whether she runs the columns or not, she has to pay for them. As a money-grubbing capitalist, that is one of my prime considerations.

But what made her decision so brilliant was that it contained two parts.

After deciding not to print the Bobbitt columns in her paper, she wrote an editorial giving her reasons: The columns were "tawdry . . . inappropriate . . . rude . . ."

But she recognized that some of her readers might like something tawdry, inappropriate and rude.

So she offered an alternative. They could request copies of the offensive column by mail or fax, or they could drop by the #F newspaper office and pick up a copy.

RTC As she wrote: "It is not the Sun's intent to censor our paper. It is, however, also not our intent to offend a good number of readers. By providing the columns in this manner, I feel we are able to accomplish both goals."

I like that. It's the first time that my column has been an under-the-counter product. Makes me feel like Hugh Hefner.

In an era when TV news shows us a giant condom being slipped over a statue in Paris, when couples wiggle, jiggle and squeal on our movie screens and TV sets, and when best-selling novels are more graphic than a gynecologist's textbook, it is not easy for a newspaper columnist to become unfit for decent folk.

And I'm pleased to note that as of a couple of days ago, about 200 people in Parsons had requested copies of the limerick columns. That might not seem much in Chicago, but for Parsons, that's a wild and crazy crowd.

Since the real fun of limericks is reading them aloud to others, I'm assuming the Parsons 200 has been doing just that. By now, it's possible that half the town's population has heard the smutty things.

Other papers squashed the limerick columns, which is their right. But they didn't do what Ms. Kennett-Charles did: offer them sort of on the sneak. (If the readers of these papers send me a self-addressed stamped envelope, I'll send the columns. But if you faint from shock, don't blame me.)

What I like best about Ms. Kennett-Charles' decision is that it is a clear example of why newspapers are different from TV, radio, the movies and book publishers.

Basically, we're prudes. Those limerick columns -- hardly titillating by TV or movie standards -- were shocking to many editors. So they exercised their editorial right to say: "Uh-uh, not in my paper."

In contrast, a TV exec would say: "Will risque limericks sell commercial time? Yeah? Then risque limericks are what the public demands, right?"

However, I must warn Ms. Kennett-Charles. Readers have sent several thousand Bobbitt limericks, many far more imaginative than those I have published.

Mrs. Bobbitt has yet to stand trial. When she does, some limericks might still be timely.

The good people of Parsons would surely agree with the old saying: "Waste not, want not."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.