US broadcasters and newspapers faced a challenge this week in reporting on President Donald Trump’s alleged use of the word “shithole.”
Some television anchors went to lengths to avoid it to uphold their bans on vulgar language, shortening it to “s-hole,” for example, while some newspapers replaced letters of the offensive word with asterisks, leaving readers to use their imaginations.
Little was needed to figure it out. The word was everywhere on social media, which brought several US news outlets to the conclusion that it was futile to try to cover it up, though some painfully tried with comic effect.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer did his best verbal gymnastics to get around it. In a mashup compiled by the Daily Show, Blitzer’s discomfort is clear.
“The president said quote, ‘Why do we want all these people from – I won’t use the word – s-hole countries,’” an exasperated Blitzer said. He then tried “bleep-hole” before finally throwing up his hands, saying “You get the point.”
MSNBC initially used asterisks, then changed to “shithole,” while Fox News wrote “s—hole” from the start on its website and mostly stuck with that formulation.
Other broadcasters warned listeners before letting the expletive on air.
An editor’s note on a story at National Public Radio’s website painstakingly explained: “NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language.”
Its policy allows such language when it is “absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told,” it continued.
The actual policy goes into more detail, noting the Federal Communications Commission attempt to punish a broadcaster that failed to censor Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” which exposed her nipple, during her 2004 Superbowl half-time performance.
Regulators have taken a much more aggressive line on what they regard as indecent or profane content, NPR’s policy warns.
Traditional print media had an easier time, presumably because they don’t have to worry about young children inadvertently hearing a vulgarity.
Some tried the middle-of-the-road solution of only partially printing the word, but most major newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times parted with tradition and used it in full from their first story.
Some media critics pointed out that when such language is vital to the essence of the story – as it was in this case – excising it in print or bleeping it in broadcast would lessen its meaning.
A blog on swearing found all this refreshing, saying it wasn’t notable because Trump said it, it was “notable because it made it into newspapers – several of them, even! – unexpurgated.”
If there is one thing that makes most lexicographers “gasp in delight” it is when a well-respected newspaper prints the word shithole, the Strong Language blog said.
The blog also pointed out that journalists writing other languages faced the challenge of translating “shithole” effectively. Aside from being a vulgarity, this use of the word is non-literal.
While it originally referred to an anus, since the 1930s it has referred to a godforsaken hole-in-the-ground or an undesirable place, the blog said.
Any foreign journalist who missed that nuance could have created a serious translation faux pas.
German media translated the word to “Drecksloch,” using “Dreck,” meaning “dirt” (and in some cases “shit”) instead of the more common “Scheisse,” meaning shit, which is used without compunction in German print media and broadcast.
Editors chose “Drecksloch” in this case because it is a commonly used word, while “Scheißloch” is not.
All media have learned since Trump entered politics that it’s harder to remain free of profanity, a fact borne out even before the election by his “grab ’em by the pussy” comment.
Now standards have shifted a notch further to where a president’s choice of the word “shithole” can be both printed and reported on air.