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.”
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?