Friday, April 30, 2010

God to The New York Times: "Thou Shalt Not Drop the Bible Speak!"

In a previous post, I explained that The New York Times' “alerts” feature sends a reader an email any time an article of interest appears in the paper. Readers can choose from a list of hundreds of pre-set alert topics. Strangely, it turns out that “adultery” is an alert topic, but “sex scandals” is not. In my post, I suggested that the Times drop the antiquated, moralistic term “adultery” altogether. As a search topic, why not replace it with something more descriptive, like “extramarital sex” or “sex scandals”?

No way, says the Times. In an email response to my proposal that was not just snarkily dismissive but also laughably incoherent, the folks in the Index division insist that the search term “adultery” is preferable to alternatives because, in their estimation, the term “adultery” is less judgmental than possible substitutes like “sex scandals” or “extramarital sex.”

That’s right: The New York Times thinks the term “adultery” is morally neutral. What millenium are these people living in?

And here’s the truly hilarious part: to justify this conclusion, the Times directed me to that great arbiter of truth and objectivity: Wikipedia. (Am I the only one who thought the whole point of reading The New York Times was so that I wouldn’t have to use Wikipedia as my baseline for reality?) But hey, if the Times tells me to read Wikipedia, I read it—which apparently is more than the Index guy who sent me the link can say for himself.

The Wikipedia entry on adultery explains that while the term has Judeo-Christian origins, the concept of an extramarital transgression predates Judaism. Based on this neat historical tidbit, the Times proclaims itself justified in treating the term “adultery” as a moral universal, simply because the idea spans time and place.

Setting aside the absurdity of relying on a strained parsing of a Wikipedia entry to justify an argument of any kind, what is even more risible is the fact that the very first paragraph of the entry in question resoundingly rejects the position the Times seeks to defend! Here is what it says: “The term ‘adultery’ for many people carries a moral or religious association, while the term ‘extramarital sex’ is morally or judgmentally neutral.”

So, the Times dismisses the term “sex scandals” as a replacement term for “adultery” on the grounds that the term “sex scandals” is less objective than the term “adultery—but the very Wikipedia entry the Times cites as evidence for this bizarre conclusion actually takes the opposite view.

But wait, there’s more. If the term “sex scandals” doesn’t pass the Times’ contorted neutrality test, how about using a term like “extramarital sex” in its place? Oh no, says the Times, the term “extramarital sex” would never do in a diverse society like our own in which non-marital intimacies, such as civil unions or other public commitments, enjoy widespread public recognition.

While I wholeheartedly applaud the Times’ commitment to inclusivity, I am again flabbergasted by a logic so faulty it veritably reeks of disingenuousness. Perhaps the Times is unaware, but the term “adultery” also implies a transgression of a specifically marital bond--so I fail to see how the term “extramarital sex” applies any less (or more) to non-martial unions than the term “adultery” does. There is an important difference, though, and that is the fact that the term “extramarital sex” does not explicitly endorse an antiquated Judeo-Christian morality.

Whatever may be the imperfections of terms like “sex scandals” or “extramarital sex,” these terms nonetheless mark a clear improvement over “adultery,” a word which has as no place in a respectable newspaper which aspires to objectivity and fairness in reporting. “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet asks. This Juliet says: a lot.