President Donald Trump made more waves than usual on Jan. 12 when the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey reported on what had transpired in an Oval Office meeting earlier that day with bipartisan lawmakers.
According to the Post and others present at the meeting, Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as “shitholes.” He went on to add that the United States should instead welcome people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister he had met with hours earlier. And, at first, even the White House didn’t deny Trump’s alleged words.
All shithole-related jokes aside, the fact that the president of the United States uttered such a damning phrase sparked an unorthodox debate among news outlets: Is it permissible, or even morally OK, to use the word as President Trump did?
Among the big-three television news networks, only NBC’s Lester Holt said “shithole” verbatim on that evening’s “Nightly News.” ABC and CBS both avoided the word explicitly, opting instead to say in their own words that Trump had used an expletive.
Of course, it was noteworthy in the first place that the Post included “shithole” in its headline for its original story. The New York Times, on the other hand, did not mention the word in its headline.
The question the media faced eventually changed from one about Trump’s language to whether his comments were racist and what that says about him as a person.
Late-night hosts didn’t back down in calling Trump a racist, nor did some politicians. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was among several Democrats that tweeted in support of the communities Trump marginalized:
Immigrants from countries across the globe – including and especially those from Haiti and all parts of Africa – have helped build this country. They should be welcomed and celebrated, not demeaned and insulted.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) January 11, 2018
As time passed, though, most Republicans in Congress went from being silent to complicit in contradicting the words used. Although Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., went on record to confirm the Post’s story, two of his GOP colleagues in the Senate changed their story on this week’s Sunday talk shows.
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue challenged Durbin’s recollection of the meeting and said that Trump didn’t say anything close to “shithole.” In fact, Perdue called the story a “total misrepresentation” of the meeting on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
That storyline is only part of the issue, though. News organizations were put in a difficult position in determining whether to report exactly what the president said. Normally, that’s not an issue, but this was said behind closed doors.
Legally, most broadcast networks are required to censor language that may be offensive to children, provided there is potential for kids to be watching at the time. Even so, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) only investigates infractions if viewers file complaints.
In the aftermath of some news programs saying “shithole” on-air, though, some folks complained to the FCC.
The decision most organizations faced in running with “shithole,” as opposed to “s***hole” or “bleep-hole,” was to report on the truth the way it happened.
But the bottom line is that each organization’s definition of accurate reporting — with moral standards considered — came into question, too. It would have been egregious for a news outlet to ignore the story entirely; and those reporting on it, whether on-air or in writing, ostensibly tried the best they could under the circumstances.
What may come of this is an update on standards for profanity; but whether that comes from journalists or the FCC is a separate issue. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is that journalists may have to challenge their own rules, just as the White House has done for the norms of the presidency.