By Lena Williams
When President Trump reportedly uttered a vulgarity during a meeting with members of Congress on Jan. 11, some media companies were ambivalent about whether to print or broadcast the offensive term.
It’s not every day that a word like “shithole” is published in the pages of The New York Times, a paper historically referred to as “the old gray lady.”
Who among us can remember tuning into your local, network and cable news broadcasts only to be bombarded with reports that a president, no less, had used a profanity to describe certain countries?
The president had assembled a small bipartisan group of congressional representatives in the Cabinet Room to discuss immigration. When the subject of including protections for immigrants from Haiti and some African nations arose, Trump questioned why he should accept people from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway.
Most media outlets had no problem using Trump’s words. The Washington Post used the term in a headline the following day. The Los Angeles Times and Politico used the word freely in the body of their news reports. CNN and MSNBC broadcast Trump’s language over the airwaves for hours on end.
Lester Holt, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” opened the broadcast with a parental warning that “this may not be appropriate for some of our younger viewers,” “while ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir said the president used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”
Although The Times did not use the word in news alerts or in the paper’s headlines, the paper broke with a longstanding policy that prohibits the use of profanity even in quotes and published the word in a page one story that ran on Jan. 12.
Some readers were disturbed at the paper’s decision. Some television news outlets also heard from viewers who questioned whether it was necessary to repeatedly broadcast Trump’s exact words not knowing if children were within earshot.
While I empathize with parents whose children may have been inadvertently exposed to a bad word, it’s not the job of the press to sanitize or censor its coverage.
The public has the right to know what the president says or does no matter how profane, disturbing or controversial his words or actions may be. To do anything less would be a disservice to the public the press is sworn to serve.
Phil Corbett, a spokesman for The Times told Newsweek that “the specific vulgar language the president was reported to have used was really central to the news here. So it seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly.”
Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, told Washingtonian: “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”
This wasn’t the kind of locker room talk Trump said he used when speaking about grabbing women by the “p” in an interview with Access Hollywood correspondent Billy Bush last year. The president was talking about immigration, when he denigrated Haiti and the entire African continent.
Two days before the Jan. 11 meeting, the president met with another bipartisan group of lawmakers and pledged to work in good faith on an immigration reform bill that would extend protections to the 800,000 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children.
In less than 48 hours, the president had dramatically changed his posture, repeatedly using profanities, according to some of those in the meeting, to voice his opposition to DACA, the program that permits immigrants who were brought here illegally as children to remain in the country.
Trump’s remarks were said to have so alarmed and disturbed some members of Congress that one, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, spoke with reporters following the meeting. After initially refusing to say what the president had said, after The Post reported on Jan. 11 that Trump had used the term in the meeting earlier that day, the following day Durbin told reporters that the president had used the expletive “several times” and had said “things that were hate-filled, vile and racist.”
Those who blame the media for reporting Trump’s vulgarity are blaming the messenger.
It’s not the first time Trump’s use of vulgarity has created a media frenzy.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, several news outlets debated whether to use the word “pussy” after television footage emerged of Trump bragging that he had grabbed women by the “p” in an unscripted conversation.
At a rally in Huntsville, Ala., in September, news outlets were caught off-guard when Trump referred to National Football League players who refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem as “son of a bitch” during live broadcasts.
Federal Communications Commission rules prohibit the broadcast of indecent material during the period of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. At the same time, the FCC notes on its website that the agency “must be mindful of the First Amendment” and Section 326 of the Communications Act, which prohibits the FCC from censoring program material, or interfering with broadcasters’ free speech rights.
The FCC hasn’t sanctioned any broadcast outlet that repeated Trump’s offensive language because the agency has no grounds to do so. The profanity wasn’t coming from George Carlin, the late comedian, whose 1972 routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” got him arrested and led to a Supreme Court case against the FCC. Trump’s vulgarities were the words of the incumbent president of the United States.
We all know the importance of words. Despite the age-old adage, words can and do hurt. Words can heal or hinder, foster war or peace.
The president is a man who doesn’t mince words. He prides himself on speaking his mind, notwithstanding the consequences. Too often the Trump administration has tried to downplay something the president has said, blaming the media for taking his words out of context or of not knowing a joke when they hear one.
The media has to take the president at his word and let the public decide whether he means what he says.