Politics, profanity and the daily news

Let’s be clear. Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to give responsible public media fits trying to figure out how to provide accurate quotations or descriptions within the context of a publication intended for the entire family. Bill Clinton’s intern shenanigans and Richard Nixon’s White House tapes — whose published form fixed the term “expletive deleted” in the public consciousness — provide familiar recent examples. The 1976 picture of Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller making an obscene gesture toward a critic offers another, and a determined researcher could no doubt find similar challenges going back to the beginnings of the republic.

But the controversy over the word President Trump is said to have used in describing distressed countries whose immigrants he considers undesirable does offer the opportunity to reflect on profanity and the efforts a news organization appealing to a universal audience makes to address it.

In this case, our approach on the first day of the story was to use the word in the body of the story as infrequently as possible, to abstain from using it or any version packed with asterisks, exclamation points, hashtags or other symbols in headlines. Since then, we have continued to monitor its use carefully, publishing what may be necessary for clarity, leaving the rest to the sensibilities and imaginations of readers. We’ve striven to avoid the temptation we’ve seen elsewhere in some outlets that seem almost gleefully adolescent in repeating the term or referring to it.

This particular word is clearly a top-tier obscenity — first on the list of George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words you can’t say on television. But we at the Daily Herald aren’t concerned with top-tier obscenities alone. Our policies require even mild profanity used by writers or news makers to be cleared for publication by the editor or managing editor — a practice that can seem odd at times in an age of relaxed attitudes toward such language.

But we still believe there’s value in self-discipline in language, that becoming too comfortable with profanity can promote more of it, and that, generally, there are much more effective, less-offensive ways to express oneself. We’d like to be an environment for that kind of language. Now, if we could just get our top politicians to see things the same way more often.

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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