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The obligation to use 'Redskins'

The Eagles play the Washington Redskins on Saturday.

That sentence wouldn't appear on the editorial page of The Washington Post, or under the bylines of various sports columnists around the country, or in the student newspaper at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County. Those publications and people have decided that the word "Redskins" is so offensive, as a slur against Native Americans, that they will not use it. (This assertion, of course, is also at the heart of a campaign to change the franchise's name.)

To these writers and media outlets, the NFL team in the nation's capital is always "Washington," never "the Redskins," and they are of course free to take such a principled stand.

It's just that they really shouldn't.

Here's why: This idea might come off as old-fashioned, especially in our diverse and ever-expanding media world, but if you're a reporter or a columnist or a newspaper or a magazine or a news website or maybe even an independent blogger or pretty much anyone who practices what can be called journalism, your primary responsibility ought to be the same: Report the facts as accurately and completely as possible, present them as accurately and completely as possible, and don't let any agenda - political, social, personal - get in the way of those goals.

You start with that foundation, and you build your news story, your analysis, your commentary (however mealy-mouthed or strident) from there. That's the promise you make to your readers.

The problem with banning "Redskins" as a reference to Washington's football team, then, is that you're breaking that promise right off the bat.

You're revealing immediately that, in what's supposed to be your role as a reliable narrator, you are actually unreliable. You're telling your readers: We have a principle or an agenda that goes beyond informing you. In fact, we'll withhold information from you if we believe it runs counter to that agenda. It doesn't matter that this agenda may be based on good intentions - in this case, on the desire to be respectful to Native Americans.

Once a news organization places such advocacy ahead of thorough, precise, honest reporting, it fails to stick to the fundamentals of journalism, and it puts its credibility at risk.

No one would condone a publication or website using an ethnic term in a pejorative manner, and of course different media outlets have varying standards for what they consider to be appropriate language. But there is at least a general consensus in our society and culture about which words rise to the level of vulgarity, and that consensus hasn't been reached yet with respect to "Redskins" - at least, not as this particular sports franchise still uses the word.

Remember: No one's suggesting that, for all his faults, owner Daniel Snyder wants to retain the franchise's name for the express purpose of demeaning or mocking Native Americans. (Does Snyder want to continue making millions of dollars by keeping the name and its recognizable tradition? Sure. Does he want to avoid upsetting the team's fans and sacrificing ticket sales? Absolutely. That makes him rather greedy, which means he's pretty much just like any other NFL owner.)

The objections to the name are grounded in the notion that the word itself is offensive, no matter how or why it's used or why the franchise won't change it, and therefore it should not appear in print or online. But if we're to apply that logic to similar terms or words, there should have been media who referred to this former NFL quarterback as Chris Guy Who Went To Louisville. See if you can find anyone who did.

I'm not arguing that the franchise should change its name or that it shouldn't, and I'm not arguing that it's wrong for a media member to support a name change and say so publicly. But I am arguing that even if Snyder were refusing to change the name solely because he was an overt bigot and racist, the journalistic responsibility to provide information to news consumers supersedes the desire to avoid offending anyone.

"Redskins" is the official name of a franchise in the National Football League. It is a fact. You report facts. You call them the Washington Redskins because it's their name, and because that's supposed to be your job.