By now, probably everyone on the planet has heard that the current President of the United States, in a discussion about immigration policy with members of Congress in the Oval Office, described African countries as “shitholes.” According to The Washington Post, he said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” These reports were confirmed by other news organizations and participants, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
If a news organization does not use the word ascribed to the President, are they censoring him?
It's easy to say that yes, they are.
In fact, while non-broadcast news organizations have reported this story in a number of different ways from shying away from the offensive term in headlines and only using it in the body of the story, using it in headlines, or using appropriately placed asterisks, the use of language such as this is a different challenge for broadcasters.
The FCC's own rules. These rules stipulate that for broadcast outlets “obscene, indecent and profane” content is prohibited.
I'm not going to get into the definition of “obscene” here since it is something that we have been debating since at least 1964 when in a landmark Supreme Court case Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “I know it when I see it.”
But with regard to indecent and profane content, things are somewhat clearer. According to the FCC, broadcast stations (TV & radio) are prohibited from airing such content between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. “when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”
This prohibition does not apply to cable, satellite TV and satellite radio. That's probably why you saw the term used quite regularly on MSNBC and CNN.
You can read all the FCC guidelines here.
I'm more focused on what is the right journalistic decision to make.
To me it is fairly obvious that journalists should be reporting what the President says. But I also understand why broadcast networks might be skittish about it. Good Morning America (which airs on broadcast not cable) anchor George Stephanopoulos disagreed with the decision not to use the President's language on air - “I don't think it is right to censor the president or to sugarcoat the racist sentiment revealed by how he used that word in the meeting.”
As we learned when President Trump suggested that NBC's broadcast license should be revoked because of a news story he did not like, it is not the network that is licensed to broadcast, but local stations that hold broadcast licenses.
If there is a challenge made about violation of FCC guidelines, it is the local station that has to be challenged not the network.
How does that work you might be asking yourself? From my experience at NPR News I can tell you that if NPR News decides to make an editorial decision that might be challenged on grounds that it violates FCC regulations, they let the local stations know first so that local stations can make a decision whether they want to air the controversial language. And as I outlined in a previous column, public television stations are locally owned too.
To be sure, the bar is high to make such a challenge, but it would be the local broadcast licensee that would have to mount a defense, which has the potential to be expensive.
PBS NewsHour opted not to use the language.
I asked Executive Producer Sara Just about that decision. Here's what she told me: "We consulted with our legal counsel and were given the OK to say it on the air by that standard [the FCC standard], given the nature of the context. However, even with that allowance, we decided that given the time that our broadcast airs, when children can be around the television and families are often having dinner, we would not use it so explicitly. Instead we referred both on screen in graphics and verbally to "s***hole." I believe any adult understood the meaning. We explained this decision again on Friday's broadcast when we did the same."
WGBH's local news program “Beat the Press” opted to use the language after considering previous challenges and deciding that the context of reporting on the President justified using the language. Host Emily Rooney adds, "We let the audience know they were going to hear that word)...Also, since the substance of our story was how the media handled the term we felt we couldn't bleep it since the whole point was that some bleeped it and others didn't."
If the decision to withhold the language was motivated from a fear of running afoul of FCC guidelines, I understand the sentiment (though I would have still made the decision to air the language).
If the fear of using the word was a result of prurient concerns about appropriate language for a sensitive audience, my belief is that the journalistic imperative on reporting on the President outweighs those concerns. What the President says, and thus what it reveals about policy or attitudes, is news.
There is often discussion about whether the President's Twitter comments should be reported on. I, personally, may not be a fan of the looseness of Mr. Trump's Twitter finger, but without a doubt, what he communicates on Twitter is news that needs to be reported, too.
Just as the #metoo movement has unleashed concern about graphic descriptions of sexually inappropriate behavior (an issue I've addressed before), judging whether to use language based on prurient concerns undermines the journalism. When we use euphemisms we alter the story. When we decide to insert or delete language because of sensitivities, we are providing a disservice to both the audience and a story themselves.
I did see some social media calls out to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to weigh in on the use of this language on our public airwaves to which he did not respond.
Our world is changing, our methods of communicating are changing and the current President of the United States has changed how a President communicates too. What shouldn't change is the rigor with which the news media covers the presidency, regardless of the occupant and sometimes that hits right up against our concern for the audience. It's a dilemma that I'm sure will be faced again.
Joe Biden on Grief
Last week I responded to questions about Judy Woodruff's interview with former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently on a book tour. One of the issues I raised was that I would have liked to hear more from Biden about grief and how families cope, since that was ostensibly his reason for writing his book. NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just alerted me to the fact that this topic did come up in the longer conversation and that they shared that portion of the interview online. For those of you who are interested here it is.