The day before the election Sen. Jake Garn was right there on the silver tube telling the state Democratic chairman to "keep his damn mouth shut." I saw the incident reported not once but three times on KSL-TV. It was even teased on the 10 o'clock news.
The following morning the Tribune tiptoed around the D word. It wrote that "Utah's Republican senator said that Mr. Horiuchi should `keep his expletive deletedT mouth shut.' "That evening the Deseret News wrote it, " `Randy ought to keep his damn mouth shut,' Garn said."
The story was about the visit of the Discovery shuttle astronauts to Thiokol. Horiuchi had complained that the visit was being politicized, by its timing and because Republican incumbents seeking reelection, Gov. Norm Bangerter and Rep. Jim Hansen, had been invited to the ceremonies, while their challengers had not.
Garn found the Horiuchi complaint insulting because the astronauts had "risked their lives in space."
The following day, in a routine story about the weather, the Tribune worried less about using that word. It wrote, "These damn storms just drive you crazy," quoting William Adler of the National Weather Service.
Media befuddlement over how to use even mild profanity was never clearer than in the Tribune's inconsistency.
Responsible newspapers and broadcasters try to hold to a good rule: avoid printing or airing even mild profanity unless there is a compelling reason for it.
But where to draw the line, what makes a compelling reason, is becoming harder in our permissive age, when the entertainment programs on TV are sprinkled liberally with all manner of words that used to be regarded as unfit for polite company. TV shows don't even bleep some four-letter barroom words anymore.
Over the years this column has argued often that we should strive for G-rated language in the media invited into the home.
Profanity, especially when legitimized in print and on the airwaves, debases the language, which ought to be the vehicle for respectful human interaction. We become the poorer for it.
So I can't see much of a case for reporting the word in a weather story. But a compelling reason can be argued for it in the Garn story, and not just because viewers had heard the outburst on the air and might think the Tribune bluenosed or prissy for avoiding the word.
It went directly to the state of Garn's mind. It told us how emotional he is about the astronaut program. And clearly he still suffers the anguish of the death of friends in the Challenger tragedy. And understandably, he got untracked in saying the astronauts faced death - no one was disputing that.
All that having been said, Garn would have been wiser not to have responded as he did. Some people might think that Garn as provoked and was right in being blunt. Others may believe, as I do, that since he doesn't have to prove that he's no wimp, he was too vehement. Furthermore, no public personage has the right even under emotional stress to be so arrogant as to tell another to shut his damn mouth.
The point is that the citizenry ought to be the judge, should know, as a matter of legitimate public interest, that their senior senator chose to react this way.
(BU) I do wish, however, that this element of the story had been kept subordinate, as it was in the newspaper stories. TV featured it. It overwhelmed the coverage of the visit, because TV is more theatrical. Confrontation makes wonderful theater.
ELECTION NIGHT NOTEPAD: The best election reporting was, again, on KBYU's Channel 11. Political science students had boned up on regional races. What they lacked in polish they made up for with authoritative factual information the other stations and even the network anchors were sometimes guessing at. Like Dan Jones', Prof. David Magleby's exit polls were correct, again; he was right on the button in the close governor's race, although both he and Jones declined to make a projection there because the spread was narrower than the statistical margin of error.
Magleby and Jones reported their findings a few minutes after the Utah polls closed at 8 p.m. The networks on the other hand were irresponsible in making vote projections and calling races long before the polls closed in many states. By early evening, even before many voters in the East had balloted, the networks had made it clear a Bush landslide was under way. They rationalized self-righteously that projections were not made for races in states in which half the polls were still open. Some reforms are clearly needed, perhaps the 24-hour voting period first suggested by Elmer Lower, the former ABC news boss who visits at the Y. often and was on the KBYU election program.
- President-elect Bush's campaign manager may have made the sorriest comment of all about the state of American politics when she was asked what election reforms were needed. Almost everyone agrees the process is uncivilized - much too long, too expensive, dreadfully tiring and increasingly cynical, tawdry, negative and shallow. It turned off voters in droves despite its inherently fascinating mechanics. The Bush aide said all this was "the American way." But of course, she had won.
- In any event, it's not likely to be a kinder, gentler way. The remorseless media eye is picking apart candidates' lives in a way unthinkable two decades ago. In some ways that's good, in others pretty sad. The benefits were suggested obliquely in the Tribune's Sunday election tabloid, which devoted a page to the Douglas Stringfellow saga. He was the radio announcer whose overblown stories of his World War II heroism propelled him into Congress from the 1st District in the mid-'50s. The article did not mention directly, however, one of the most important facets of the story: Stringfellow's war exploits were known as fabrications by some of the Utah press, which did nothing to expose them until a Washington paper, the Army Times, dug into the story. The late Prof. Frank Jonas' definitive work on the case, on which the Tribune story relied heavily, says: "One may doubt if there has been a case in history quite like this one, where there has been so much conclusive evidence of a fraud or a hoax and where there has been so much unwillingness to expose it."