WHEN DOES EDITING BECOME CENSORSHIP?
I recently had to answer this question when Vermont Public Radio prohibited me from using the word “grandfather” to name my childhood abuser.
They insisted on alternatives, like “male relative.”
For ten days we went back and forth, trying to find a way through this editorial impasse until finally, I withdrew my script and wrote the story of what had become the all-too-familiar narrative of being blamed, shamed and silenced for speaking out about sexual abuse.
But I wasn’t silenced: I wrote the story about VPR’s attempt to censor me, published here.
DRAWING AN ETHICAL LINE IN THE SAND
I was torn between my desire to broadcast my story and my need to be accurate. In the past, I’ve mostly accepted editorial suggestions that I thought were less than perfect but not worth taking to the mat. This time, I balked for the following reasons:
- Precision of Language: There was no reason to be vague when the English language already provides a perfectly good, accurate, and specific word to name my abuser: He was my grandfather.
- To use one of VPR’s suggested substitutes, like “beloved male relative” or “someone close” would be to cast aspersions on many innocent people, including all my truly beloved and respectful male relatives and friends;
- VPR’s claim that to name “my grandfather” crossed the line of “journalistic integrity” is specious:
- My grandfather died in 1972; the dead cannot sue for defamation of character;
- This is a commentary, not a news report;
- My contract clearly states that I’m responsible for the veracity of my content, not the radio station.
A MATTER OF TRUST
Worse than the arguments outlined above was the station’s complete lack of trust in me, despite their repeated protestations of “complete trust in your integrity.” Ironically, the script I’d submitted was about why women stay silent about sexual abuse for fear of being disbelieved. I was disbelieved.
Worst: VPR worked harder to protect the reputation of my long-dead abuser than to help get this story out in the world. They didn’t succeed in silencing me, as I found a different outlet for the story, but they have done their audience a disservice by remaining silent about what happens to ordinary women who are willing to speak out about what we’re discovering to be a common occurrence.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post, among other mainstream news outlets, continues to publish the voices of well-known women willing to talk about their abuse. Are only celebrities allowed to speak? Let’s not kid ourselves: sexual abuse occurs across all ages, genders, races, religions, socio-economic groups; it is truly inclusive.
ENDING THE SILENCE
At first, I was hesitant to insist on accurate language for fear that I’d never be allowed on the radio again. But during the ten days of arguing by email, I knew that speaking the dirty truth was more important than sanitizing my words, even if it meant losing what has been a wonderful gig. I’ve already found other outlets for publication.
And most important: I’m doing my part to end the silence that allows the ubiquitous abuse of girls and women at work, at school and at home to continue.