Newsweek needs to watch its language

Times must be a lot tougher than I thought in the magazine publishing business. Because at Newsweek, the budget apparently no longer even has enough money to pay for asterisks.

In many publications that don’t include photos of unclothed women, asterisks are the symbols used in place of letters contained in words some readers might find offensive. Other industries also refer to these symbols as “stars.” Recorded messages you get on your phone, for instance, might tell you to enter a number, followed by the star. That’s because recordings are unable to pronounce “asterisk” and would say, instead, “asterICK.”

However you pronounce it, Newsweek seems to have run out of them and has been forced to use the actual letters in the offensive words it prints.

In the Jan. 23 issue, one blogger found a dozen asterisk-free examples of what commonly are known as “dirty words.” In the first 10 pages of the Feb. 13 edition, I found nine words many people would not say in front of their 6-year-olds, their grandmothers or their clergypersons, including words that begin with letters such as “f” and “s.”

Fortunately, this newspaper has an ample supply of asterisks, so I can give you one of the more mild examples. In her Page 4 column, Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown writes, without asterisks, that Mitt Romney was “p***ed off” by something Newt Gingrich did.

This suggests that, in addition to not having money for asterisks, Newsweek’s thesaurus has been stolen. Because there are plenty of other words she might have used. “Angry,” “irritated,” “ticked off” and “mad as a wet hen” come to mind.

In response to criticism over its newly vulgar vocabulary, a Newsweek spokesperson noted that newsstand sales and subscriptions have increased in the past year. That may or may not justify asterisk-free journalism, but perhaps a circulation war is no time to worry about 6-year-olds, grandmothers and clergypersons.

But what about adult subscribers who prefer to read analyses of politics, economics and other news without being assailed by “f” words and “s” words? What about students not of legal swearing age who may have been assigned homework that involves reading news magazines?

On a purely personal note, what about those of us who think writers who need to resort to vulgarisms are either lazy, trying too hard to be edgy or both?

There are, as Newsweek argues, instances in which public figures use obscenities while being interviewed and it’s necessary to quote them completely and in context.

But that’s why most responsible publications make sure they have an ample supply of asterisks.

Contact D.L. Stewart at