How News Organizations Are Handling the Term “Golden Showers”

Image via iStock.

Many publications say they’ve looked into the remarkable allegations against Donald Trump that surfaced Tuesday night and haven’t been able to verify them. BuzzFeed News’s publication of the dossier they come from puts those careful journalists in a bind: As the AP puts it, “Most news organizations, including The Associated Press, held back on the specific allegations because they had not been substantiated.” But now they’re newsworthy.

One of those claims is that while in Moscow, Trump hired “a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him.” He even addressed it, kind of, during his press conference Wednesday. So, in the aftermath of struggle over whether or publish at all, a new challenge has emerged: how to write about the alleged sexual conduct of the President-elect.

Younger publications aren’t prim: Mic did an explainer, noting the act might better be called “piss voyeurism.” Quartz used it in a headline, but not the story. Deadspin, yes. Daily Beast, mm-hmm.

Some legacy organizations are going for it. Newsweek used it, as did McClatchy:  “Internet fixates on ‘golden showers’ in allegations about Donald Trump and Russia,” says its memorable headline.

McClatchy addressed the allegations “because the report was out there for everyone to see, and it’s our job to make sense of what the public is seeing, hearing, and asking questions about,” says Julie Moos, its shared news director, who made the call. (Moos was at one time my boss at Poynter.) McClatchy published several stories about the report. With regard to “golden showers,” the news organization has no general policy about vulgar terms: “Decisions about objectionable language are made in the context of particular subjects and terms,” she says.

The New York Times had no immediate comment on editorial discussions with regard to “golden showers,” but its spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha sent Washingtonian the relevant passage from its stylebook, which states in part:

The Times writes unblushingly about sexual behavior, science, health, crime and similar subjects, opening its report to any newsworthy detail, provided the approach is dignified and the vocabulary clinical rather than coarse. In these situations, writers and editors avoid evasiveness and euphemism, which would be a disservice to readers who need to understand issues.

But The Times very rarely publishes obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones.

In Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s account of his earth-shaking Access Hollywood tape scoop, he describes how Post editors struggled with representing Trump’s language on the recording:

The Post is a fairly fusty place when it comes to profanity. If a reporter tries to get a bad word into a story, the word is usually forwarded to top editors, who consider it with the gravity and speed that the Vatican applies to candidates for sainthood. That unwieldy system assumed that bad words would attack one at a time, like bad guys in a kung-fu movie.

But in this story, we were dealing with a whole army of bad words at once. The system was overloaded. When Trump said, “Grab ’em by the p—-,” for instance, the editors weren’t sure people would be able to guess right away what “p—-” was. They added a letter at the end: “p—y.”

Other words required a ruling from the bosses.

“Go find out about ‘tits’!” I heard one editor tell another, while the story was being edited — Trump had used the word in criticizing a woman’s appearance. The second editor left to find a higher-ranking editor who could make a ruling. “ ‘Tits’ is all right,” he said when he returned.

The Times, whose stylebook forbids the initial letter plus dashes approach (“Instead, in most cases, offer a general description“) printed the term pussy in conjunction with the tape, as did CNN and pretty much everyone else. As best I can tell via Nexis, the Post on kept avoiding it except when discussing CNN’s use of the word.

TAGGED IN: ,

More from News