The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A brief history of obscenities on C-SPAN, in honor of the new 3-second delay

The coarsening of American political discourse is complete. Washington Post media ace Paul Farhi reports that C-SPAN has added a brief delay to its call-in shows to prevent foul language from making it on air.

Not to stereotype, but if you don't watch a lot of C-SPAN, you might think its callers are a bunch of mild-mannered public-radio-listening types who appreciate poetry and well-made sweater vests, thereby rendering such a precaution unnecessary. Apparently not.

In a season of uncommonly crass political rhetoric, this is indeed a "sign of the times," as Farhi tweeted. But while it is convenient to blame Donald Trump and supporters who "don't give a s---" — the words of a 76-year-old woman who phoned in a couple of months ago — it is worth noting that occasional vulgarities have been part of C-SPAN telecasts for a long time.

In 2004, C-SPAN's then-president, Brian Lamb, said he was mulling a five-second delay after noticing an increase in profanity. "It's not fair that people have to listen to young white men calling the network day after day and using four-letter words to get their jollies," he told Knight Ridder's Gail Shister at the time. C-SPAN also had looked into adding a delay two years earlier.

But Lamb described himself as a "purist on the First Amendment," noting C-SPAN's mission to provide live, unfiltered coverage of politics. He added that it would be a "very sad day" if the cable channel ever had to resort to a delay.

Since then, several C-SPAN callers have dropped the n-word, including one who applied it to President Obama in 2014. A caller said in 2010 that the United States was "jewed" into Iraq; Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the Atlantic at the time that he and some other Jewish journalists had stopped agreeing to appear as guests because of similar, anti-Semitic calls.

In a single week in 2012, C-SPAN received at least three calls from people speculating about the size of Mitt Romney's penis.

Late last year, a caller posed the following question to Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a guest on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal": "Can I s--- in your mouth?"

These incidents are not representative of typical call-ins, of course. Just last week, C-SPAN provided the forum for a far more civil exchange involving a white caller who self-identified as "prejudiced" and asked an African American guest what he can do to change and "be a better American."

A C-SPAN caller asked a black guest how to stop being prejudiced. Here’s how she responded.

But comments laced with bigotry and swearing now come frequently enough that C-SPAN has decided, at last, to combat them with a three-second delay. C-SPAN Co-President Susan Swain told me no specific episode prompted the decision.

"It was just an accumulation," she said. "We wearied of subjecting the whole of our audience to the crude language of a few individuals."

Swain emphasized that C-SPAN is not censoring callers' views — just their language. The delay is designed to allow producers to end calls before obscenities make it on air. It's a fairly modest change but one that Lamb, who founded C-SPAN in 1979, hoped the cable channel would never have to make.