Profanity in the news media

I’m sure you’ve seen the quote from Bill Barr, former attorney general under Trump, commenting on the conspiracy theories being floated by the administration to explain Trump’s loss in the election: “The claims of fraud are bullshit.”

This has been widely reproduced in written articles, and the corresponding clip from Barr’s deposition played on TV news shows, without any kind of redaction applied to the profanity.

Here’s an example from CNN, where the word “bullshit” is asterisked in the caption under the embedded video, but is reported without editing in the body of the article. And in the video, the word is not bleeped.

There are lots of other examples from mainstream media suggesting the word is at least somewhat normalized in a news context: the Guardian, the New Yorker, the LA Times, and more. (It may or may not be noteworthy that the first two of those feature the word in the headline, while the third buries it halfway through the article.)

It’s normalized to the degree that, during some of the coverage I saw, the CNN anchors and analysts were comfortable occasionally using the word themselves, directly referencing the quote. (“So Barr says he told Trump the stories were ‘bullshit,’ how do you think Trump reacted?” and similar usage.)

On some level, this seems relatively consistent with the incident in 2018 where Trump referred to a swath of third-world nations as “shithole countries.” The media seemed to briefly struggle with how to report this, before evidently coming to a collective shrug, deciding that it was a Presidential quote, and that redacting it would dilute both its impact and significance (NBC, AP, Time, etc.).

However, it might be arguable that the latest “bullshit” example is a small escalation: It’s a quote from a Presidential underling, not the President himself. Also, I don’t remember any news-desk staffers themselves using the word “shithole” on the air, the way they’re now casually saying “bullshit,” but of course I could be forgetting or overlooking something.

While “shit” is kind of a mid-range curse word, the line is also softening on even stronger language. When Biden was heard on a hot mic saying the Affordable Care Act was a “big fucking deal,” it was invariably bleeped on the networks (where it was even mentioned), and censored in mainstream American print. One could find the unedited quote on less-mainstream sources like Huffpo, naturally, or in foreign publications. But in “legitimate” American news, it was out of bounds.

That was 22 years ago. Now, we have Trump advisor Steve Bannon going ballistic on his podcast, threatening the freedom and careers of government officials who pursue criminal prosecutions against Trump and his allies.

The quote: “We dare you [to indict] because we will impeach you. We’re winning in November and we’re going to impeach you and everybody around you. Fuck — screw the White House. We’re going to impeach you and everybody in the DOJ.”

This quote, including the word “fuck,” is faithfully reproduced by Insider (and by Yahoo News, reprinting the same article).

Other sources, though, shy away from it. The Independent excises the word “fuck,” referring to it as “an expletive” in the article text and editing the embedded video to skip it.

Nevertheless, the word is showing up here and there. In a story about chronic problems with race-based abuse at Tesla factories, NPR faithfully reports on the finding of “fuck [racial epithet]” written as graffiti in the workplace. Interestingly, they censor the epithet, but not “fuck.” And sites that are reprinting the January 6 hearing transcripts generally are not removing the profanity used by the police officers during their attempts to resist the insurrectionists, as captured in recordings of the event.

I don’t really have a debate question here, which is why I’m not putting this in GD. It’s more of an observation, with an invitation: What, if anything, do you think about this?

Because I’m not sure, myself, what to think about it. I mean, I’m on the internet, and I have what my kids refer to as “a potty mouth” (though I’m pretty good about controlling it around them). I have no moral objection to profanity and I think pearl-clutching about it is pretty silly. Even so, it’s pretty strange to see cable-news personalities casually cursing at each other. And it feels, in a vague sort of way, like a coarsening of the culture to have these words, especially “fuck,” appearing in otherwise sober news coverage. I’m not sure if it adds anything to include it, unedited, versus “f—” or one of the other common elisions. But on the flip side, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to remove the harshness of the original user’s language, insofar as it reflects the harshness of their attitudes and thinking, which could itself be a critical element of how we process and understand the news story.

So. What do you think?

Fareed Zakaria 2016. I saw him say this live though I don’t know if this is the same instance.

Excellent entry into the list of examples. Thanks.

A while back ago another poster here posted a link to an article explaining why we make certain words forbidden and why it’s nonsense. Especially as it pertains to children using those words.

It was a really good article and made a lot of sense to me. Unfortunately, my aging brain can’t remember the details. Maybe I’ll get lucky and that poster will post a link here again.

Anyway my thoughts are: I don’t care about the use of any of those words being used in social media.

I shared this article a while back. Is it the one you were thinking of?

One of the most obvious differences is the words kids are allowed to use. Most parents use words when talking to other adults that they wouldn’t want their kids using. They try to hide even the existence of these words for as long as they can. And this is another of those conspiracies everyone participates in: everyone knows you’re not supposed to swear in front of kids.

I’ve never heard more different explanations for anything parents tell kids than why they shouldn’t swear. Every parent I know forbids their children to swear, and yet no two of them have the same justification. It’s clear most start with not wanting kids to swear, then make up the reason afterward.

So my theory about what’s going on is that the function of swearwords is to mark the speaker as an adult. There’s no difference in the meaning of “shit” and “poopoo.” So why should one be ok for kids to say and one forbidden? The only explanation is: by definition. [3]

Why does it bother adults so much when kids do things reserved for adults? The idea of a foul-mouthed, cynical 10 year old leaning against a lamppost with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth is very disconcerting. But why?

That’s the one!

Very much appreciated.

If what’s newsworthy is that a prominent figure is using particular words, then you report the words that they’re using. If your article just says “Trump responded with an obscenity”, or the like, then you’re shirking your duty to report the news.

Yeah I saw/heard the Barr comment (he said it several times) and I agree the needle was nudged a little in making that word more permissible and accepted in the news media. I was surprised the censor did not hit the “beep” button. Does anyone know if the hearings even have a censor, or are even on a five-second delay?

However, I think it will be a while yet before it regularly appears in your favorite sitcom or prime-time drama.

I think the news media is 10 or so years behind the rest of the culture here. Fuck, shit, whatever - it’s 2022 - does anyone really care?

Thus continuing the cycle of every new generation convincing their elders that they are the source of moral decay and degeneration in the culture.

Wasn’t there an episode of South Park about 20 years ago that essentially normalized the word “shit” for basic cable TV? I remember reading that Comedy Central wouldn’t allow the use of the word as used in the original script about half a dozen times, but reversed themselves when it was rewritten to include the word 200+ times. This desensitization of the word through barrage allowed other cable channels to use the word in normal discourse with no sensationalism attached. I’ve noticed a similar trend with full frontal male nudity over the last year since an HBO show called Minx saturated its first episode with it. Now we have Mike Myers and the Kids in the Hall doing it just for a laugh.

I know those examples are cable/streaming TV, but I don’t see why the same thing can’t happen in more formal media, even those ruled over by the FCC and other official censors. As far as they’re concerned, if someone says “bullshit” (or “fuck” or “asshole” or even a racial or sexist expletive) and no one complains, then it is not obscene.

I remember that episode. There was a “shit” counter in the corner of the screen, and Parker/Stone worked hard to use the word gratuitously.

I think it’s an improvement if words referencing sex or shit become permissible, while racial/ethnic/etc. slurs become taboo.

(Though I suppose it risks increasing the use of the slurs as general curse words.)

Agreed. What is explicit? Whatever society frowns on most. By going against social norms we express how strongly we feel about something, which is what gives explitives their power. When we were backwards religious fanatics, our expletives were things like “God’s Blood”. Just daring to invoke the concept of God in a cavalier way provoked the desired reaction.

Then we became more secularized, but due to our leftover puritanical values, we were still extremely prudish about things like sex or excrement. Hence, fuck and shit being the rudest words you can say.

If we’re finally moving past that, and only treat words intended to dehumanize and harm - IE slurs - in this way, I think that is a great thing.

This would definitely be a problem, though.

Rude, yes. Rudest? No.

I think it’s fine if you’re quoting a public official or a public person (like a celebrity), but to redact a written swear word in a newspaper, magazine, or book and make me guess what they said is chickenshit in my opinion.

Now if a reporter on TV or Radio decides to casually use swear words in their broadcast that’s a different story. The FCC has rules about that but quoting a public person who uses swear words seems perfectly legit to me.

I recall at least one example of that where Trump said something on the level of “damn” and Trumpists accused the “Fake News Media” of engaging in false delicacy to give the impression the cut loose with really vile profanity.

Fuck, at least, was the rudest word you could say when I was a child and young adult (1950’s into the 70’s, say.) Racial slurs weren’t considered by many people to be significantly bad language. Many ethnic and sexist slurs are still in common use today, though in some cases because the user doesn’t recognize them as such.

“Fuck” used to be sufficiently uncommon in public use (even after it had become quite common among some groups) that somewhere around the 90’s I had to explain to my mother what it meant. She was unusually naive on the subject; but it was possible to be so, because most of her life it wouldn’t have been a word ordinarily used in her hearing, or in print.

I think, if you redact profanity, especially examples like Trump calling Africa a bunch of “shithole countries”, you do the public the disservice of not letting them see just how much of a nasty person he is.

Biden uses the F word, of course, but as an intensifier.

Cable stations work a bit differently. Network TV falls under the purview of the FCC which has enforced a 10:00 pm to 6:00 am watershed period when more mature content could be aired. South Park on Comedy Central was also historically aired later at night, though in that case it’s more to placate advertisers, because the FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction. Yes South Park was still pushing boundaries, but the nighttime slots were already more permissive to begin with.

My etymological dictionary, vintage 1930s, describes each of fk and ct as one of the two standard English words that cannot appear in print anywhere in the English speaking world.

Times change. The New Yorker regularly uses fuck. I don’t think I’ve ever seen cunt there.