July 17, 2006

Presidential expletive watch

You'd think President Bush might have learned his lesson back in 2000, when a live microphone picked up his rude comment to Dick Cheney, calling New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a "major-league asshole." Now once again he's been caught swearing, unaware of a live mike in front of him. Bush was speaking privately with Tony Blair during a lunch at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, and the topic of discussion was the current violence in the Middle East. Here's how the conversation with Blair was transcribed by Reuters:

Bush: I think Condi (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) is going to go (to the Middle East) pretty soon.
Blair: Right, that's all that matters, it will take some time to get that together. ... See, if she (Rice) goes out she's got to succeed as it were, where as I can just go out and talk.
Bush: See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over.

You can watch the video of the exchange as it appeared on BBC News here, or in another BBC report (with commentary from Baria Alamuddin, Foreign Editor of the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat) here.

Even though Reuters and the BBC have no qualms about reproducing the word shit, American media outlets are once again trying to figure out how to report on an expletive without actually saying or writing it. (Even the foreign news organizations are being careful: the Reuters report informs readers right away that there is "strong language in paragraphs one and eight," and the online BBC news report similarly warns, "This clip contains strong language.") So far, the Associated Press (which once managed to report on a poll it conducted on obscenities without actually mentioning any), has expurgated Bush's comments in at least two different ways:

Version #1 (via CNN, ABC News, etc.):
"See, the irony is what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this (expletive)."

Version #2 (via CBS News, Houston Chronicle, etc.):
"See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s--- and it's over."

To be fair, some international news outlets have also bleeped Bush: the Australian Associated Press uses "s**t," while the Guardian follows the AP and uses "s---." But the most creative expurgation I've seen has been on the CNN website. If you click on the link in the AP article to "watch raw footage of the Bush, Blair exchange," you get a pop-up window with the clever headline, "The sh_t heard round the world." Give that copywriter a raise!

I expected to hear a bleep concealing the word shit in the accompanying CNN video, but it turns out that they chose not to censor Bush (and even provide helpful captioning for the exchange). I'm sure CNN wouldn't dare run that video unbleeped over the air [*] — even though they're a cable station and not (yet!) subject to the draconian fines that the FCC now imposes on broadcast television for even accidentally aired obscenties. For instance, affiliates of FOX may face fines of up to $325,000 because the network's microphones picked up a conversation during a NASCAR race betweeen crew chief Kevin Manion and his driver Marin Truex, in which Manion called the team's car "a piece of shit." The Manion incident led the American Family Association to issue an action alert calling for the FCC to punish local FOX affiliates for airing the obscenity. I wonder if the AFA would make the same call to arms if it was our president uttering the S-word?

(See links here for related posts, including one on Nixon's deployment of the S-bomb.)

[* Update #1: I was wrong — CNN aired the video unbleeped, complete with captioning. TVNewser has the clip.]

[Update #2: USA Today reports that CNN stood alone in airing the video unexpurgated:

CNN broadcast and posted unedited video. The New York Times and The Washington Post reported the word in Web stories. On CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC and USA TODAY, the word was excised in videos and Web stories (though an audio clip with a warning at USA TODAY included it). The Times and the Post said they'd publish the word today; USA TODAY will not.
CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson says: "The word is not one we would normally air on CNN, but when said by the president in this context, we thought it was appropriate.
"The expletive ... was reflective of how these two world leaders talk with each other."
But David McCormick, NBC News standards chief, says NBC was able to "communicate the spirit of the conversation without actually broadcasting the word."
But Bob Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, says news organizations were right to use the word.
"You don't have to spend very long in a barber or beauty shop or on the golf course or in the locker room to hear this word," he says. "It may be tough on some people's ears, but this word is not one that is high on the scale of offensiveness."

I also received an email from the foremost chronicler of obscene language (and the prudery surrounding it): Reinhold "Rey" Aman, editor of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. A constant source of amusement for Maledicta is the squeamishness of news organizations in printing "bad words" — see, for instance, the item here about how newspapers bowdlerized Tom DeLay's use of the word chickenshit in 1997. Aman's exposure of news editors' weaseling ways was the subject of a 1992 article in the American Journalism Review. The late New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal is quoted in the AJR article as saying "We'll take 'shit' from the president, but nobody else." At least his paper has stuck by this dictum by printing Bush's comments uncensored.]

[Update #3: Wonkette notes that the Washington Post went ahead with uncensored shit, yet for some reason pulled its punches recalling the Adam Clymer asshole incident, saying only that Bush "called the journalist a 'major-league ...' well, jerk."

[Final update: More on the New York Times' use of shit here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at July 17, 2006 03:53 PM