Twerking is not a four-letter word

The complainant, David Murrell, thought that a column in which Neil Macdonald compared the behaviour of politicians, especially Republicans during the recent Congressional standoff, to Miley Cyrus’s antics on air was obscene. He objected to the use of the word twerking. He also thought that cbcnews.ca was biased because the only story featured was Macdonald’s analysis. I found that the word twerking is not an obscenity. And cbcnews.ca had several other news pieces on the United States government shutdown available on the website.

COMPLAINT

You felt an analysis column by Neil Macdonald about the politics of the shutdown of the United States government was highly inappropriate. The column, which you referred to as a diatribe, is titled: “Analysis: Republicans twerking for the cameras like Miley Cyrus.” You felt that Mr. Macdonald was “engaging in obscenities” because he used the word twerking and he compared Republicans to the singer Miley Cyrus. You cited these lines from the piece to make the case that the essay contained “mean-spirited, obscene language”:

Like the utterly shameless woman-child Miley Cyrus, modern Washington understands the mortal risk of banality, and so occasionally needs to make a singular spectacle of itself.

Republicans are doing that now: sticking out their tongue, grabbing their crotch, waggling their rear end and ‘twerking’ for the cameras, to use that awful neologism.”

You said the essay indulged in “rather hysterical name-calling, instead of putting forth rational arguments.”

Aside from the language, you objected to the placement of the essay on the news home page. You said it was the only reference to the situation in Washington you saw on the page. There were no “objective” articles listed, so that you might check on the latest news of the day. “So instead of informing Canadians as to what is happening in Washington, we are treated to an opinion essay lobbing obscene insults at Republicans.” You felt this harmed “CBC’s supposed journalistic integrity.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Director of Digital Media, Marissa Nelson, responded to your concerns. She told you that CBC News had been following events in Washington over a period of time and that there was extensive “traditional news coverage”:

“…I believe you will find CBC News.ca has posted stories every day for at least the last fortnight, stories often updated hourly. In addition, we have also carried analysis – such as Mr. Macdonald’s – and opinion that we believe helps brings insight and clarity to the impass.”

She also suggested that you may have misunderstood the meaning of the word “twerking.” She did not think that the article contained any obscenities. She said:

“It is not an “obscene” term, but a style of dance. The word was coined some ten years ago by hip hop artists and is widely used in hip hop culture. As the headline suggests, it came to wider prominence in recent controversy surrounding a performance by Ms. Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony.”

REVIEW

Much of your complaint is based on the language used in the article by Neil Macdonald. You find the term twerking obscene. The word, as Ms. Nelson points out, emerged in popular culture about 20 years ago. A Wikipedia entry surmises it found its way first into hip hop culture via the bounce music scene in New Orleans. It cites a 2000 release of a hip hop song called “Whistle while you Twerk” as an early use of the word in popular culture. Its use has become widespread enough that there is now an entry in the Oxford Online Dictionary. It defines it this way:

“dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance:

just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song

twerk it girl, work it girl

It is true the word describes something sexual, what might be considered an obscene gesture, but it is not a swear word or obscene in and of itself. It does not violate CBC journalistic policy on language and taste:

We respect and reflect the generally accepted values of society. We are aware that the audiences we address do not all have the same definition of good taste. We choose a tone that will not gratuitously offend audience sensitivities. In particular we avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.”

The underlying question is really whether this was an appropriate image or analogy to use. The idea of twerking, or vamping, or acting in some extreme manner to get attention had been very much in the news and popular imagination since Miley Cyrus, a young performer once known for a wholesome image, performed provocatively at the Video Music Awards. In certain circles, this caused quite a stir, and a fierce debate in social media.

It is a vivid image, one Mr. Macdonald chose to play off when talking about the posturing and pronouncements in Washington. While mostly directed at Republicans in this instance, it is a not very flattering take on the political process. You may agree or disagree that it is an effective analogy, or the most appropriate way to express it, but it is not in violation of policy. And in the interests of fairness, Macdonald also points out that Republicans don’t have a monopoly on this kind of behavior. He cites some grandstanding by then Senator Barack Obama:

Everyone, incidentally, participates in Washington’s theatre of the absurd sooner or later.

As Carney is perfectly aware, his own boss has been known to dress up as a showgirl when it suited him.

'Shifting the burden'

On March 16, 2006, when he was a U.S. senator, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit to allow the Republican administration of George W. Bush to keep borrowing.

Twerking and waggling, Obama declared that the very fact that the debt ceiling needed raising bespoke a “failure of leadership” by Bush.

The administration was “shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren,” said the future president. “Americans deserve better.”

Sound familiar?

Democrats say it’s an unfair comparison, that the only reason Senator Obama voted against raising the debt limit was because he knew very well it would be raised anyway, because Republicans controlled Congress back then.

Translation: Senator Obama voted for something he knew was idiotic because it would let him go back to the, um, crowd in Illinois that sent him to Washington and tell them how he’d stood up to those neocon Bushies.

Your second concern was that this seemed to be the sum total of CBC’s coverage of the ongoing drama at the United States Congress; there was only analysis, but no news when you looked on the home page.

The landing page of the website is dynamic, and several stories can cycle through a more prominent location. But the other stories are accessible. And that was the case on October 8 when you spotted Mr. Macdonald’s work. There was another article written that day, updated many times between 10 a.m. and 6p.m. Under the headline “Obama pressures Boehmer over shutdown, default,” it chronicles the activity and maneuvering of the day. It in turn links to several other articles about the shutdown.

There were three more news pieces posted on October 9 and three more the day after that. The Macdonald piece also linked to at least one news story, as well as several other analyses he had done. The rationale, I am told, is that users are interested in finding other, similar material that interests them, hence the link to previous Macdonald essays. Where practical, it might be useful to link to other writers’ takes on the same or similar subject. There are other examples of ongoing analysis on the Washington stand-off available on the web site. Your concern about lack of news coverage is unfounded.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman