Potter Stewart’s most remembered comment as a U.S. Supreme Court justice came in an obscenity case in 1964.
In an opinion about whether a movie was obscene or pornographic, Stewart said he found it darn near impossible to define pornography. Then he added:
“But I know it when I see it.”
With that, he may have unwittingly put his finger on a dilemma in the law and in society: defining social and moral acceptability so it pleases everyone. Or, as the Supreme Court later ruled, so it squares with community standards.
Such a situation faced editors at the Tucson Citizen this week in deciding which picture to run with a story on the 25th anniversary of the cable television network MTV.
The picture we ran, of singers Madonna and Britney Spears kissing onstage during the annual MTV Music Awards in 2003, raised objections from some readers.
They said it was indecent, “trashy” and didn’t belong in the newspaper. In other words, they knew it when they saw it.
Before that and before it was printed, use of the photo raised quite a discussion among Citizen editors. That discussion was renewed after the photo was published Tuesday.
As a prelude to sharing with you aspects of the newsroom discussions about the photo, I must tell you my initial reaction to its publication was negative.
I thought we were wrong to have run it, and I thought it should not have been the main story on our Nation/World news section front page.
I, too, knew it when I saw it.
Frankly, I changed my mind after listening to what a group of editors had to say about it.
Part of my change came from the fact that a lot of thought went into it and that the ensuing discussion helped give us a better grounding for deciding what we publish and what we leave out.
News Editor Bruce Johnston told me how the decision came about.
“Why MTV on the Nation/World front?” Johnston said, repeating my question. “It’s a significant anniversary for something that has become a cultural and social phenomenon.
“The discussion Monday over the photos drew in at least five people, including myself. . . . it was pretty evident that the photo most saying MTV was the 2003 kiss between Britney and Madonna.
“If MTV can now be considered a cultural icon, then this is perhaps its most iconic photo.”
Said Senior Editor/News Jennifer Boice, who was not involved in the discussions or decision, “I knew when I saw the photo we would get calls. Its blatant sexuality was something that I knew would offend some readers.”
But, Boice pointed out, Citizen Entertainment Editor Rogelio Olivas told her he has run this same photo at least three times in the Thursday Calendar Plus section.
So Citizen readers have been exposed to it, though not in such a prominent place as the front page of the Nation/World section.
Boice compared this with another social icon, going back a half-century.
“Elvis’ shimmy shake was found as offensive back in the ’50s because of its explicit sexuality,” she said.
She compared it to the Spears-Madonna kiss in that each was part of a set of social mores colliding head-on with an era of expanded sexuality.
Johnston was key to the decision, so he gets the last word, at least for now.
“Speaking personally now, I don’t find anything objectionable in the photo,” he said, as I reminded myself that he is a mature man in his 50s, with two grown children and more than three decades of newspaper experience. “I object much more to photos of bloodshed, destruction and man’s inhumanity to man.
“What I see, and perhaps readers don’t see, is that storytelling photos often are objectionable in some way to some portion of our readership.
“Summing up, if we edit for the many to appease the few, then I don’t think we’ve done our job well.”
Michael A. Chihak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4646.