S-words and F-bombs – sharing or sparing vulgarities in the news

The censored version of the CNN chyron, and Jake Tapper, who looks perplexed

Garry: In the 1970s, the comedian George Carlin made a name for himself with a hilarious routine about seven dirty words you can’t say on TV.

Shit was No. 1. Today, the s-word shouldn’t shock anybody.

I hear far more vulgar words and coarse language while walking through the student union.

The F-word is everywhere. I like to save that word for special situations, such as hitting a golf ball into the water on the golf course.

But times are changing — what is considered civil is changing. Standards are evolving, and you see it on social media, daytime TV shows, in films and books, and reader comments on stories.

WJR’s Guy Gordon Show asked me to comment about press coverage of President Trump’s reported use of the word “shithole” to describe some African countries during meeting Thursday in the White House.

Many news organizations have for decades avoided publishing profanity.

Was the media violating its own long-held policies simply to embarrass the president, Guy asked?

I think not. The president’s choice of words in a discussion about immigration polices should not be sanitized.

As journalists, we should ask ourselves whether the comment is newsworthy. When and where was it said? Who heard it? Who is the source for the information? Does the audience need to know? What does use of coarse language say about the speaker? Are there valid reasons we should sanitize the language?

If the speaker is the mayor of Pontiac, or the coach of the Detroit Lions, and they used “shithole,” I might clean it up. It often depends on the circumstances. As a former sports writer, I often cleaned up quotes for grammatical and potential embarassment reasons.

The New York Times’ policy used to be no cursing even in a quote. It was the “old gray lady” and it maintained a certain decorum that was expected by its readers.

Go back to 1976. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter used the word “screw” in an interview with Playboy. He said he had “lusted” after other women in his heart.

This was an explosive story.

The NY Times, in writing a story about Rolling Stone’s interview, changed “screw” to “a vulgarism for sexual relations.” Many readers then assumed Carter had used the F-word, so the Times the next day changed it to “a common but mild vulgarism for sexual relations.”

In recent months, however, the Times has published phrases like “tough shit” and “scares the shit out of me” when they appear in quotes.

And back in July, the paper published now-infamous terminology like “f—— paranoid schizophrenic” and “I’m not trying to s–k my own c–k” in articles about Anthony Scaramucci’s meltdown.

This is not a first for The Washington Post. Vice President Dick Cheney used the F-word toward Sen. Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate.  It was 2004. The Post printed the word in its stories. Other media reported that Cheney told Leahy to “perform a crude act upon himself.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush told Tony Blair in comments that were taped “See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.”

In this case, the NY Times used the word, Chicago Tribune used s— and CNN covered the word with a bleep tone.

Today, 12 years later, it’s clear standards have changed toward more authentic coverage. A former student who is now a copy editor at a small daily newspaper in northern Michigan texted last night to say her editor gave her permission to use shithole following a discussion.

Holly pointed out to me today that the word shouldn’t be the story. Instead, the president’s thoughts behind that word should be the focus.

As usual, she’s right.






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