President Trump’s vulgar remarks about immigrants forced newsrooms to decide whether to bleep the most powerful man in America.
More importantly, the story also sparked conversations about the president’s racist track record.
Journalists have covered other racial remarks and controversies in Trump’s past. But this time felt different — maybe because Trump’s comments were so brazen, maybe because it happened in the Oval Office, maybe because many news outlets were quickly able to confirm the Washington Post’s story.
On Thursday evening, several CNN news anchors said the quote attributed to the president about “shithole countries” was a racist remark.
At 10 p.m., CNN’s Don Lemon went further and said “the president of the United States is racist.”
He added: “A lot of us already knew that.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow called Trump an “openly racist president.” At the same time, multiple Fox News hosts defended Trump. Tucker Carlson said “President Trump said something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with.”
On network newscasts, the determination that the remark was racist was usually attributed to “critics.” On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Jon Karl handled it this way: “Comments that strike many as simply racist.”
On “CBS This Morning,” Norah O’Donnell asked veteran journalist Bob Schieffer, “Is it racist?” Schieffer answered right away: “Yeah. I mean, how can you take it any other way?”
Fox offered an alternative interpretation. Trump supporter Steve Cortes said on “Fox & Friends” that Trump was speaking plainly about “troubled countries.”
Fox News and Fox Business have not repeated the word “shithole” once, according to transcript searches.
It was quite a contrast to CNN, where hosts and guests used the word dozens of times on Thursday evening and Friday morning. On MSNBC, the word was used a handful of times.
Cable channels are not subject to FCC indecency regulations. But broadcast networks are. (And both have to think about kids watching.)
In the hours after the story broke on Thursday, CBS News and ABC News decided not to repeat the word on TV. PBS “NewsHour” anchor went with “S-blank-hole countries.”
But NBC News did broadcast it. “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt warned viewers, “Our report includes that expletive once, so that you can hear the complete quote for yourself.”
On Friday’s “GMA,” George Stephanopoulos said “ABC News policy is not to repeat the profanity,” but then expressed his own personal disagreement with the policy.
“I think that’s probably a mistake,” he said, “because I don’t think it’s right to censor the president or to sugarcoat the racist sentiment revealed by how he used that word in the meeting.”
NPR’s handling of the word evolved over time. At first, it was not repeated on the radio airwaves. But on Friday morning, after Trump addressed the controversy on Twitter, new guidance went out to the newsroom.
“We feel it is necessary to say the word ‘shithole’ so that listeners have the full context,” standards and practices editor Mark Memmott wrote in an internal memo. “But, the word should be heard very sparingly. No more than one use of the word each hour in the main shows is enough.”
Major newspapers did not put the expletive in headlines, but did quote it within their stories.
Most Americans probably found out about Trump’s insult from their phones — through push alerts or social feeds. So it’s not as if people are left wondering what he said — the digital and viral nature of news means the offending comment spread right away all around the world.
Fox political anchor Chris Wallace, speaking with a local Fox station on Friday, took stock of the dilemma that journalists faced.
“Remember, this is the president of the United States in the Oval Office, and the media is having to warn the American people: ‘Here’s what the president said, don’t be upset with us.’ It’s a pretty stunning moment,” Wallace said on WNYW.
CNNMoney (New York) First published January 12, 2018: 12:17 PM ET