It started suddenly in the summer with Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant during an arrest for allegedly driving under the influence.
Then, in the fall, "Seinfeld" actor-comedian Michael Richards was caught on tape hurling the N-word at a black heckler at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.
Then, in October, "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington was accused of using anti-gay slurs on the set of the hit show. His comments were directed toward co-star T.R. Knight. Earlier this month, he denied the incident at the Golden Globes and used the word faggot.
After outrage over his comments, Washington apologized, admitted having personal issues, and said he was seeking treatment. He's been off the set since that happened, but he returns to work today.
The media coverage of these high-profile hate-speakers was frenzied and detailed - but inconsistent.
Some Slurs More Taboo Than Others
In the Richards' incident, the cell phone video of the tirade from the stage spread widely, but the N-word was routinely "bleeped" or edited out of broadcasts. Print and online media descriptions of the outburst almost rarely spelled out the offensive language. It was always described as "the N-word."
"In a society, there is always some realm that is considered more taboo than another," said linguist and Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter.
"Our big taboo now is about race and so there is something that you really, really can't say, not even as a joke, and that word is n-r."
But no such taboo appears to exist for the word Washington used, though it's considered hate speech when used to describe a homosexual.
The word was used almost without restraint by the media in the reporting of Washington's argument on the set in October. There was no argument that was caught on tape. There were no direct quotes. There was no substitute for the real slur.
After "Grey's Anatomy's" Golden Globe win, though, Washington declared to a roomful of reporters, "No, I did not call T.R. a f-t."
That was caught on tape and also widely disseminated. Here again, though, no one in the media backed away from the epithet. There were bleeps in the video replay.
Is there a double standard when it comes to the reporting of hate speech against racial or ethnic groups and gays?
"The rules haven't been written yet on how to report on slurs as a whole," said Eric Hegedus, president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.
"It all comes back to this: Can you tell the story without using the word? In every instance, you need to consider how the word is being used," Hegedus said.
Is using the F-word worse than using the N-word?
"There's ... a perception that there's a hierarchy of slurs, which can be quite dangerous," he said.
"When we're children in the schoolyard, anti-gay slurs are usually heard more often than racial slurs. The hierarchy may still exist, not just in the schoolyard, but also in the news media," Hegedus said.
Reaction to the media's use of the word faggot in the context of a story, even among his own membership, has been mixed.
"There won't be a universal consensus on this," he said. "I think what you're seeing is that different people have different reactions to it."
"In journalism, we're there to tell our audience what's going on and allow them to make judgements for themselves," Hegedus said. "[However] when you're covering a war, for example, you sometimes make a decision not to show certain images. In each individual newsroom, they have to make the same decisions about slurs - almost every day, it seems recently."
A New Movement Needed
"Gay and lesbian interest groups have asserted that as a society - we somehow condone derisiveness against gays that we wouldn't against other minority groups," said Tom Rosensteil of the Pew Research Center.
Rosensteil, who directs Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, wonders whether the different treatment of biased speech against race and sexual orientation suggests a media blind spot.
"Most people who are not gay have not heard a lot of conversation about language and identification terms for people inside the gay and lesbian community. It is just not a world they are talking about," he said.
There is little ambiguity about the origins or historic use of the N-word in the United States. Faggot, however, is a term that over centuries has had a number of legitimate meanings, as chronicled by dictionaries and wordsmiths.
In medieval times, faggot referred to a bundle of sticks or firewood. In the 18th century, the term described an underclassman's status in relation to an upperclassman at an English boarding school. In the 1800s, a shrewish, ill-tempered woman could be called a faggot. And in contemporary British slang, a fag is a cigarette.
But McWhorter cautions that historic meanings of a word do not excuse a present-day offense.
"Even if we have been somewhere where we have collected a lot of wood, have we ever asked, 'How many faggots did you bring in?' he said.
"To some extent, the biases that you see most often in the press are the ones that journalists are unaware of," Rosensteil said.
"So, becoming aware of them is the first step towards making the press' treatment of a group or a subject more fair."
McWhorter, who is black and writes about issues of race and culture, suggests that a civil rights struggle has many fronts over the course of history. A movement may be needed to bring widespread sensitivity to the slur.
"It may be up to the generation ahead of us," he said. "To show there is as much of a sting to the word f-t as there is now to the N-word - a word few people would every utter in public."
Source: ABC Newsone