Pundits have spent months pontificating about the “Trump Effect.” They have applied the term to the president’s impact on economic markets, the European political landscape, a spike in bullying, and more. But one of Trump’s broadest, most-obvious achievements has been expanding the reach of vulgarities.
No American president has championed coarse, cruel, and dangerous language as Trump has. Whether it has been his what he has said in private (“Grab ‘em by the pussy”) or in public (“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now’”), his words have led the charge of an explosion of profanity, sexual innuendo, and racial slurs from State Houses to high school classrooms to the streets. All the while, newspapers have wrestled with how to report on the language and its implications.
Trump and his mouth (and tweets) have dominated headlines, but scores of leading politicians have added to the chorus of crude and lewd discourse. Earlier this year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told New York Magazine, “If we’re not helping people, we should go the fuck home.” This summer, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci left a voicemail for a New Yorker writer saying, among other things, “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” From Trump to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez (who seems to be having a love affair with the word “shit”), obscenities proliferate. For major print media outlets, this language isn’t commonplace but most will print it. For smaller papers, regional and family papers, the words can be the subject of long, thoughtful editorial meetings.
“Oh, this kind of language often makes for some entertaining discussions in the newsroom,” said Judith Meyer, the executive editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine. “Even though the world around us is changing, we are sticking to our standards here. This means we look at a quote and ask if it is really necessary to tell the story or is it just there to titillate or shock.”
Those standards are largely inline with traditional family paper practices. Typically, this means maybe a “damn” or an “ass” is kept in a quote if it provides context, but it’s not used to be sensational. Yes, “damn” is pretty tame, but unlike the New York Magazine or your average sitcom, the newspaper industry has always pushed back against our increasingly ribald world. However, that push back seems to be slowly losing force in the Trump era.
“I remember writing a column and using the word ‘damn’ and having somebody tell me I can’t publish it, and this was when I was at the Boston Globe,” Portland Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee said. “I also remember people asking to me change ‘hell’ to ‘heck.’ But as language changes so do newspapers and we are seeing an increasing amount of crassness in political discourse and we have to deal with it more often.”
Greenlee and the Portland Press Herald have been ahead of the curve in dealing with vulgar politicians. Back before Trump was even a candidate, Maine governor Paul LePage leapt across the border separating decorum and indecency. In 2013, the Press Herald ran with a headline that read: “LePage draws fire for sexual remark; He says a legislator critical of his budget is ‘the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.’”
“When (LePage) or Trump or any politician uses language like that you need to bring your news judgment to bear,” Greenlee said. “When Trump was running for president he said, ‘I would bomb the shit out of ’em’ (about ISIL). This is kind of quote we would publish now but wouldn’t a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean everyone just gets to say ‘shit’ and we’ll print it.”
For some editors, quoting language verbatim is an important part of telling the truth. LePage’s Vaseline remark is crude, but quoting it allows readers to ponder the misogynistic, homophobic, and sexually abusive overtones of the phrase. Trump’s speech often wanders, often gallops, into similar territory: misogyny, sexually aggressive or inappropriate innuendo, racial slurs.
For Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of the Osage News, a tribal publication in northeast Oklahoma, redacting or paraphrasing language can excuse or mask hate speech.
“Our policy is to publish comments in full because we feel is important to let our readers now exactly how the person we are quoting chooses to express himself,” Duty said. “The kind of language a person chooses to use reveals the kind of person they are. It shows their character, their integrity, their decorum and couth. If I am listening to a politician use expletives over and over again, that’s going to tell me a lot about him.”
Duty describes her region of Oklahoma as “cowboys and Indians” and says since the election of Trump people have been emboldened to use hateful and aggressive speech. When people engage in profanity-packed tirades or casually toss around racial slurs, she will put at editor’s note at the top of the paper warning readers about the language, but she won’t write around or edit the language.
The incendiary issue of hate speech confronted Massachusetts’ Attleboro Sun Chronicle managing editor Craig Borges following Trump’s election. When graffiti appeared in bathroom at Attleboro High School saying “KKK will handle all niggers” alongside the scribbling “Go Donald Trump,” Borges debated with his editorial team on how to report it. He decided to push the paper in an unprecedented direction.
“We could have written around it, said it was a racial epithet, but we used it in the paper,” Borges said, the paper also used a photo of graffiti. “The word was so strong we felt it was important to print it. You can’t let these people, people who say this kind of stuff, off the the hook. But we only used the word once and then we wrote around it.”
The story came with an exceptionally long editor’s note—a once-rare practice that seems to be more common these days. In part the note read, the graffiti used “a word that is deeply offensive and has been a source of great pain to African Americans. The Sun Chronicle recognizes that and, in the past, would not have used the word in print. The atmosphere over the past several months has changed that. In an effort to confront the ugliness the word represents and the reality of the times we’re living in, The Sun Chronicle has decided to run the hateful sentence in its entirety.”
“I looked at the how the New York Times reported when Trump use the word ‘pussy’ for guidance,” Borges said. “With something like that you don’t repeat it to be gratuitous. But, in this climate, you need to let readers know the exact words used.”
Speaking with nearly a dozen newspaper editors and reporters around the country a few obvious commonalities emerge. First, papers only print obscene or hateful quotations when they are essential to the story. Second, thanks to politicians and everyday people increasingly engaging in obscene and hateful speech, the quotes have been more essential to stories than ever. While Trump hasn’t uttered every word, most agree he has fueled an arms race to the bottom of language, the territory of inexcusable “locker room talk,” of the furious and filterless.
The take home is a handful of deeply-powerful, often-troubling words have made it into papers for the first time in 2016 and 2017. While newspapers have been highly selective about how often they have used the words, the vocabulary of vulgarities is only going to increase. Think of the most cringe-worthy word you can and know it will probably make it to print—in the New York Times and the Sun Chronicle—over the next few years.