Bobbitt case has changed the rule over use of p-word

February 07, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- In a few weeks she will have to say the word again. She may, she figures, already have said it more times than any other broadcast journalist in America.

And she is tired of it.

Especially since she keeps picking up newspapers and magazines and reading snotty columns by men saying how women reporters like to say that word.

What word?

Let me give you a hint: The broadcast journalist I am talking about is Joan Gartlan of WUSA-TV in Washington, and she covered both the John and Lorena Bobbitt trials.

Now do you know what word I am talking about?

I do not intend to make sniggering jokes about it. And I intend to refer to it by its technical, medical name:

The p-word.

"There was a column in Newsweek claiming that the Bobbitt story got so much coverage because women reporters got a vicarious thrill saying the p-word," Gartlan said. "There was a column in the New York Times saying anchors had to keep from giggling when they said it. Then Katie Couric ended the 'Today' show one morning by saying her mother had called her up and told her she had used the p-word three times in one interview. And people did keep track.

"And sometimes, while I was saying it on the air, I thought about my 3-year-old and 6-year-old nieces and my 9-year-old nephew who watch the news just to see me. What were they going to think? Kendall, she's my 6-year-old niece, actually kisses the TV when I come on the air.

"Not very long ago, you couldn't say that word on the air. And now we were saying it every night. And nobody was used to saying it."

You're telling me you never said the word before these trials took place? I asked.

"Probably not," Gartlan said. "At least not a lot."

Not even as a giggly adolescent?

"Where?" Gartlan said. "At St. Louis Elementary? At St. Mary's Academy? At Boston College with the Jesuits? I had 17 years of Catholic schooling. I went to a Catholic kindergarten. In high school, they didn't even use that word in our marriage class."

Joan Gartlan, formerly of WMAR-TV in Baltimore, is one of the finest journalists I know, broadcast or print. She won an Emmy last year and has covered everything from the savings and loan crisis in Maryland to the Marion Barry trial in Washington to the San Francisco quake.

She is a person I listen to. Even when she wants to talk about disgusting things.

"I was doing a stand-up at the first Bobbitt trial," Gartlan said, "and a male photographer I work with stopped me and said I should always say that Lorena 'severed' his penis instead of saying that she 'cut it off.' "

Why? I asked.

"He said it gave the story more dignity," Gartlan said.

Dignity was not in great supply during the Bobbitt trials, and newspapers had to make the same judgments that the broadcast media did.

I did a check of Nexis, an electronic data base, for how many times newspapers and wire services used the p-word in the seven months preceding the June 23, 1993, wounding of John Bobbitt compared with the seven months since.

The result was 859 to 2,566, an increase of 199 percent.

"There must be some sociological point to all this, but I don't know what it is," Gartlan said.

I was hoping you would, I said. Because I sure don't.

"How about this," Gartlan said. "This trial has changed our standard of what we say and don't say on TV and radio at the same time the FCC is fining people like Howard Stern for saying the same things."

That's a very fine point, I said. I don't know what it means, but it sounds sociological as all hell.

Gartlan pointed out that on Feb. 28, reporters will have to go back into court to hear the fate of Lorena Bobbitt, who has been in custody undergoing mental examinations since she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. And broadcast journalists will have to speak the word again.

"And print journalists will make fun of us again and say there is some kind of thrill we get in saying it that they don't get by writing it," Gartlan said. "But you know what I think print journalists have when it comes to this story?"

What? I said.

"Microphone envy," Gartlan said.

I don't think I'll talk to her anymore.

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