Profanity is a tricky thing for newsrooms. Many publications and broadcasters, clinging to sensibilities that they deliver hard-hitting information in language that’s still dinner-table appropriate, dance around whether or not to clean up a salty quote. But what happens when that blue language comes directly from the President of the United States?
A wide range of senses of decorum went on display Thursday afternoon when the Washington Post‘s Josh Dawsey reported that President Trump asked, during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss immigration policy, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump asked his question in reference to African countries and Haiti, which he’d previously maligned according to reporting last December by the New York Times, then suggested the United States take in more immigrants from Norway instead. The Post, which frequently tiptoes around vulgarity—just yesterday, it inserted dashes into excerpts from what it described as an anti-Trump, “profanity-laced tirade” by Robert De Niro—printed Trump’s quote in full.
Unfiltered language from the highest rungs of the executive branch isn’t unheard of at the Post, which in 2004 put Vice President Dick Cheney‘s telling Senator Pat Leahy to “fuck yourself” during Senate picture day on the front page. But what shocked on Thursday is that the Post put the offending word in the headline for Dawsey’s story—an apparent first in the paper’s 141-year history.
This seems to be a first for a Post headline. https://t.co/ko1OWwrcBn
— Amy Argetsinger (@AmyArgetsinger) January 11, 2018
Credit the decision to the weight of the mouth that uttered the word. “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim,” says Post Executive Editor Marty Baron. “That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”
Once Trump’s statements were confirmed by NBC News—which also declined to redact any letters from “shithole” in its headline—news organizations had decisions to make: Run “shithole” unadulterated, throw in some asterisks or dashes, or come up with some clever allusion? Here’s how various media outlets coped with Trump’s latest controversial utterance.
Perhaps the most surprising decision to leave Trump’s “shithole” unfiltered was CNN, which put the word in an on-air graphic when Jake Tapper reported the story. CNN hasn’t flinched at airing vulgar audio footage of Trump in the past but it usually keeps the chyrons clean. It aired the Access Hollywood tape uncensored in October 2016, but blurred out captions of the future President’s boasts about sexually assaulting women. Today, though, “shithole” appeared right beneath Tapper when he read out Trump’s latest.
CNN goes full “shithole” pic.twitter.com/VPoaUdNXWb
— Andrew Beaujon (@abeaujon) January 11, 2018
Just as with the Post, the presidential sourcing was reason enough to break tradition. “The news value is that this was said by the President of the United States,” a CNN source tells Washingtonian. Individual chyrons are decided by show’s producers.
But not all presidential “shitholes” are treated equally. While many put it in their headlines, others, cleaned Trump up a bit, or in the case of the New York Times, crafted an oblique reference.
For what it’s worth, even if these organizations got prudish in the headline, they printed Trump’s unadulterated quote in their actual stories. And the Times even sneaked an unbroken “shithole” into its URL. Alas, though, some publications have stricter standards for their headlines than the other elements of their articles.
“That is our house style,” says Daily Beast editor Andrew Kirell.