When faced with the question of whether to publish profanity, news editors often err on the side of decorum, cleaning up obscene language that could be off-putting or offensive to readers.
But not when that language comes from the president of the United States.
When President Trump became frustrated Thursday with lawmakers in the Oval Office over restoring protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, most newspapers and television stations did not shy away from quoting verbatim what he said:
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, referring to African countries and Haiti, according to two people briefed on the meeting. He then suggested that the United States should instead accept more people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister he met Wednesday.
The Washington Post, which broke the story, shocked some readers by putting the vulgar word in its headline — a rare occurrence in the paper’s 141-year history.
“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”
Such a comment made by the president, especially in front of several witnesses, is newsworthy, no matter how reprehensible it may be, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer who writes a language column in The Wall Street Journal.
“It was incumbent on media outlets to present what he said without expurgation or euphemization,” he said.
That’s exactly what many of them did. In an unusual move, the word “shithole” was repeated in print and on air Thursday evening, in capital letters on the CNN and MSNBC headlines that appear on the lower part of the screen. Fox News censored the word with asterisks.
Lester Holt on “NBC Nightly News” warned viewers that the story would not be appropriate for younger viewers, while “ABC World News Tonight” anchor David Muir said the president used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”
But CNN’s Phil Mudd embraced the expletive in condemning the president’s language, citing his Irish and Italian ancestry and the slurs once used against immigrants from those countries.
“I’m a proud shitholer!” he told “Situation Room” anchor Wolf Blitzer. “In the 1940s, we called people traitors because they came from a shithole country we call Japan. And we’re ashamed.”
For those who write dictionaries, the repetition of “shithole” on television and on the Internet was “the sort of thing we call a party,” wrote Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam Webster.
The news has provided a flood of citations for the profanity, which as of Thursday evening did not appear in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.
The word is currently defined in other dictionaries, including the Oxford Dictionaries, which define “shithole” as “An extremely dirty, shabby, or otherwise unpleasant place.”
Zimmer said the word is commonly spoken among friends but rarely written down or documented. Its recurrence now offers a window into the word’s usage and the different contexts in which it can be applied.
“It’s part of the general culture change, I guess,” Zimmer said. “Certainly over the last 50 years, profanity or taboo terms have gained more mainstream acceptance than actually seen or printed in places, where they previously wouldn’t be considered allowed.”
While the New York Times kept “shithole” out of its online headline Thursday evening (the story on its website Thursday read “Trump Alarms Lawmakers With Disparaging Words for Haiti and Africa”), the newspaper published the president’s exact words in its story.
“The specific, vulgar language the president was reported to have used was really central to the news here,” Phil Corbett, the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, said in an emailed statement. “So it seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly. We wanted to be sure readers would fully understand what the story was about.”
One newspaper wasn’t ready to be so explicit.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said in a tweet late Thursday that its publisher requested the expletive be removed from the top of the Associated Press story on its website.
Over the past few decades, similar incidents have had newspaper editors wondering how to treat profane comments by the nation’s leaders. In 1974, the late New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal set precedent when the newspaper printed the word “shit” for the first time, after a Watergate tape revealed that former president Richard Nixon had said, “I don’t give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it.”
“We’ll only take shit from the president,” he told a Newsweek reporter at the time.
In 2004, when The Post quoted Vice President Dick Cheney’s vulgar remark to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the newspaper printed his words verbatim.
“ ‘Fuck yourself,’ said the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency,” The Post reported.
The New York Times wrote that “the vice president turned and stalked away, using an obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr. Leahy should do.”
But in 2006, when President George W. Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that they needed to “Get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit,” Bush’s language wasn’t censored by the New York Times or The Post.
Trump is already known for his use of vulgar language, most notably his comments in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged in obscene terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women. The video, obtained by The Washington Post in October 2016, recorded Trump using the phrases “Try and f— her” and “Grab them by the p—y.”
That language was censored by The Post, as Trump was not yet president. The New York Times published the specific language.