When the President Says It, Does That Mean It’s Not Unprintable?
Posted January 11, 2018 8:19 p.m. EST
Lester Holt opened the “NBC Nightly News” on Thursday with a parental warning: “This may not be appropriate for some of our younger viewers.”
His counterpart at “ABC World News Tonight,” David Muir, described President Donald Trump “using a profanity we won’t repeat.”
And Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, stammered as he delivered a report from Washington. “I noticed, Wolf, you hesitated to use that word,” he told the network’s anchor, Wolf Blitzer. “I hesitate to use it myself.”
Media outlets on Thursday took the unusual step of allowing the word “shithole” to be used in print and on air, after a report that Trump had used the term to describe African nations and Haiti during a White House meeting with lawmakers on immigration.
The unexpurgated expletive appeared, in capital letters, on the graphics known as chyrons that dominate the lower portion of the screen on CNN and MSNBC. (Fox News spelled the word with asterisks.) It showed up on smartphone push alerts sent by The Washington Post, which broke the story, and The Associated Press.
Acosta, on CNN, the first network to broadcast the term without asterisks, said the word several times on-air, even as Blitzer opted for the more chaste “S-hole.”
It is exceedingly rare for the country’s biggest news organizations to publish a quote that includes an expletive; usually, they employ a censored or blanked-out version. On Thursday’s network evening newscasts, NBC News was the only organization that quoted Trump in full. Anchors at ABC and CBS used the word “blank” instead.
But several media executives said Thursday that the news value of Trump’s remarks, which the White House did not dispute, was undeniable.
“It would be futile to mask the word when the language itself, in reference to Haiti and African countries, was so extraordinary,” said The AP’s vice president for standards, John Daniszewski.
Phil Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times, said in an email: “It seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly, not paraphrase it. We wanted to be sure readers would fully understand what the story was about.”
The Times, unlike some papers, omitted the obscenity from its headline and push alert, using the term “vulgar language” instead. “We are still inclined to be somewhat restrained — for instance, by avoiding the actual vulgarities in headlines,” Corbett said. Trump has tested these standards in the past. The word “pussy” was published by many major outlets during the 2016 presidential race after footage emerged of Trump boasting, in vulgar terms, that he had grabbed women by their genitals. At a rally in September, carried live by some networks, Trump used the term “son of a bitch” to refer to football players who kneel during the national anthem.
Past administrations also generated moments of vulgarity, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who used a profanity in marveling at the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and former President George W. Bush, who was caught on a live microphone using an expletive when referring to a Times reporter.
But Trump’s remarks — and the speed with which they have entered the public domain — are a new test for media outlets, especially when the comments appear to reveal privately held beliefs of the commander-in-chief. In this case, Trump’s comment, in the context of a discussion on immigration, was widely seen as evidence of prejudice.
“Times and levels of White House discourse, and what the public will tolerate, have flipped,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said Thursday.
He added, “Right along with the rest of our culture.”