Lester Holt opened the “NBC Nightly News” on Thursday with a parental warning: “This may not be appropriate for some of our younger viewers.”
His counterpart at “ABC World News Tonight,” David Muir, described President Donald Trump “using a profanity we won’t repeat.”
And Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, stammered as he delivered a report from Washington. “I noticed, Wolf, you hesitated to use that word,” he told the network’s anchor, Wolf Blitzer. “I hesitate to use it myself.”
Media outlets Thursday took the unusual step of allowing the word “shithole” to be used in print and on air, after a report that Trump had used the term to describe African nations and Haiti during a White House meeting with lawmakers on immigration.
The unexpurgated expletive appeared, in capital letters, on the graphics known as chyrons that dominate the lower portion of the screen on CNN and MSNBC. (Fox News spelled the word with asterisks.) It showed up on smartphone push alerts sent by the Washington Post, which broke the story, and the Associated Press.
Acosta, on CNN, the first network to broadcast the term without asterisks, said the word several times on-air, even as Blitzer opted for the more chaste “S-hole.”
It is exceedingly rare for the country’s biggest news organizations to publish a quote that includes an expletive; usually, they employ a censored or blanked-out version. On Thursday’s network evening newscasts, NBC News was the only organization that quoted Trump in full. Anchors at ABC and CBS used the word “blank” instead.
But several media executives said Thursday that the news value of Trump’s remarks, which the White House did not dispute, was undeniable.
“It would be futile to mask the word when the language itself, in reference to Haiti and African countries, was so extraordinary,” the AP’s vice president for standards, John Daniszewski, said.
Phil Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, said in an email: “It seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly, not paraphrase it. We wanted to be sure readers would fully understand what the story was about.”
The Times, unlike some papers, omitted the obscenity from its headline and push alert, using the term “vulgar language” instead. “We are still inclined to be somewhat restrained — for instance, by avoiding the actual vulgarities in headlines,” Corbett said.
But Trump’s remarks — and the speed with which they have entered the public domain — are a new test for media outlets, especially when the comments appear to reveal privately held beliefs of the commander-in-chief. In this case, Trump’s comment, in the context of a discussion on immigration, was widely seen as evidence of prejudice.
“Times and levels of White House discourse, and what the public will tolerate, have flipped,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said Thursday.
He added, “Right along with the rest of our culture.”