GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump uttered crude language heard around the world recently when a 2005 audio clip revealed he and disgraced TV host Billy Bush making disparaging and vulgar remarks about women.
Trump later said the comments were “locker room talk” and apologized in a video statement.
Some media outlets reported Trump’s vulgarities in detail. The Washington Post, which first broke the story, included the audio uncensored, but edited the text, while The New York Times chose to run the comments as they were, even putting them on the front page. NPR and Fox News abstained from airing the comments unedited at all, while CNN let the comments play only after several warnings from host Wolf Blitzer.
Post editor Marty Baron said in an interview about the story that Trump’s language was left alone for the sake of clarity.
“We make our best judgments in weighing taste against clarity about what was said,” Baron said. “I think we accomplished that in our approach.”
Times editor Dean Baquet also erred on the side of clarity.
"Of course we hesitated and discussed,” Baquet told the Poynter Institute. “But we thought this was extraordinary and not using actual language wouldn't capture what he said, and the context."
Many may argue it’s the media’s job to report incidents like this without going into such graphic detail and whether or not such a thing would have appeared uncensored in American newspapers 40 years ago is an open question (though unlikely). The Times reported that its treatment of the story set off a firestorm of reader emails asking, "Why’d you do that?"
For many people who object to profanity in public view, where young children can hear or read the words, the decision to run the comments as-is was a blow to civility in general. The problem is, civil speech has been under siege for years.
Profanity has risen dramatically in media since the first motion pictures were created, as filtering service VidAngel found in a 2013 in-house study from the first swear word in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” to 798 in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Profanity has become so commonplace on television that some experts think it’s becoming normalized into the American lexicon. In some European countries, American swear words have taken up residence alongside local vulgarities thanks in part to streaming and the availability of popular American shows like “Sex and the City.”
In some ways, then, traditional news broadcasts and print journalism might be the last bastion of “clean” language left.
Yet, entertainment alone isn’t to blame. Rather, there’s another factor at play here — the fact that anyone can say literally anything they like via social media. Social media sites like Facebook or Trump’s go-to, Twitter, have opened a virtual Pandora’s box for loose speech, be it harsh shaming, racist epithets or swearing.
And as Trump’s campaign illustrates, controversial tweets and viral, racist Facebook posts often become news.
It’s a power and a freedom Trump clearly relishes, as evidence in a recent tweet storm following his dust-up with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Ryan, having endorsed Trump earlier this year, said following the audio leak that he couldn’t condone the comments and advised Republicans to vote their conscience.
“It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to,” Trump tweeted in response.
The vile language Trump and others use on public channels such as social media may be news in the election season, but media outlets may want to ponder what they’ll do next time another newsworthy public figure decides to get blue.