To this day, the Washington Post lives by the guiding principles of fabled publisher Eugene Meyer, who decreed, among other things, the following: “As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.”
And these days that means not publishing the word “dick” in the Style section.
Last week, theater critic Nelson Pressley wrote a review of the Washington Shakespeare Co.’s production of “Kafka’s Dick,” though you wouldn’t have known as much from the review. Here’s how Pressley stepped around the lewdness:
“The comedy hasn't been seen much stateside — could it be that puckish title, which refers to Kafka and a male part of the anatomy?...”
Pressley penned a positive review of the play, but the paper didn’t include the title at the bottom of the piece, where readers go for ticket info. and the like. The omission worried Christopher Henley, the company’s artistic director. “I checked to see if indeed they wouldn’t print the title [or] at least…a redacted title, to make it as easy as possible for people to act upon the recommendation,” says Henley.
Webster’s says the word is “Vulgar Slang” for “penis.” However, there’s no handy Book of Unprintable Language floating around the Post offices, so writers and editors are on their own in making calls on vulgarities. Years ago, for example, the paper declined to put “The Vagina Monologues” in its pages; these days, it does. “Dick” presented a stiff challenge to the Style section. “That was a call we made that day. I’m not sure it was the right one, I’m not sure it was the wrong one,” says arts editor John Pancake.
Edgier sensibilities reign over in the Weekend section, which printed the entire scandalous title in its smallish review of the play. “’Dick’ isn’t a kind of thing that to my mind…we needed to run by the higher-ups,” says Weekend editor Tracy Grant.
More inconsistencies showed up in Wednesday’s Post: An item in Style’s “Backstage” column weaseled out of mentioning the title and a promotion in the section’s “Guide to the Lively Arts” was fully endowed.
When he first started work on the play, Henley imagined a different set of difficulties with the title. “I was concerned we’d have trouble e-mailing each other without it appearing like a Viagra ad and ending up in everyone’s spam filter,” he says.