Marc’s ReMARCs: Another Media Barrier Falls. A Sh*tstorm of Sh*tholes.
By Marc Silverstein
The Washington Post broke the story, and with it, busted a language barrier too. Whether you see it as blunt talk or coarse language, the paper used a curse word that is normally off-limits. The obscenity: shithole. Early Thursday night, in an online headline shocking both in its claim and word choice, the Post reported that President Trump called Haiti and Africa “shithole countries.” The paper used the whole word. There was no censorship, no sh*thole, sh!thole, or s–thole. And with that, the media’s use of the word “shithole” hit the fan. It was explosive.
Mediaite reports CNN’s Jim Acosta said it on air first. In little time, the word was used so much, The Situation Room might as well have been renamed The Shituation Room. Over on NBC Nightly News, anchor Lester Holt warned viewers before correspondent Peter Alexander used the actual term in a taped report. Throughout the night, it was s-bombs away on MSNBC, the word spoken on air and appearing visually onscreen, in an omnipresent lower third graphic. While not using the word himself, MSNBC’s Brian Williams called it “… a first for all of us.” FOX, CBS, and ABC reportedly stuck with the censored version, at least initially.
“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim,” explained Post Executive Editor Marty Baron. “That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.” Compare that to the time in 1972 when then Post executive editor Ben Bradlee cut the word “tit” from a quote by Watergate figure John Mitchell. (The then-Attorney General’s full quote was “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”). In the movie All the President’s Men, Bradlee’s character explains he made the edit because “We’re a family newspaper.” Those kind of standards apparently made a difference when families still gathered round to read newspapers.
There have been plenty of one-offs. The New York Times first used the word “shit” in 1974 when quoting President Nixon’s secret Watergate recordings. In 2004, The Post used the F-word when reporting Vice President’s caustic response during an argument with Sen. Patrick Leahy. “Go fuck yourself,” read the quote from the man a heartbeat away from the Presidency.
But it’s a milestone of sorts when the use of these formerly verbatim words becomes commonplace. I remember working in a TV newsroom in Columbus, Ohio when several coworkers were suspended because they aired a soundbite with the phrase “pissed off.” That was 1990. Now, no one gets pissed at “pissed off.” Three short years later, Lorena Bobbitt dismembered her husband’s member, and the media went nuts using the word “penis.” By 1997, the topic swelled to near round-the-clock discussions about the “distinguishing characteristics” of President Bill Clinton’s penis, along with a strain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress and the sordid details of how it got there. “Oral sex” was the probably the least controversial term that was used.
Each of these episodes usually travels a similar course. First there’s shock, and overuse by the media, followed by hand-wringing and complaints from viewers. “What do we tell the kids?” is a common question. But just like the news stories themselves, attention eventually shifts, the uproar subsides, and the words or phrases become commonplace. Maybe we get inured to the coarseness, a reflection of an eroding of society’s standards. Or maybe it wasn’t such a big deal to start with. I mean, did you ever envision the day you’d be hearing the term “grab ‘em by the pussy” all over the news? Remember, the guy who said that is now President, and busy downplaying that he ever said anything about shithole countries. (see, it’s already not as shocking.)
What’s the next barrier to fall for the media? ‘F’ if I know.