With new fault lines exposed regularly and the political landscape quaking daily, President Trump never fails to remind us he’s a seismic force in modern U.S. history.
What sometimes gets lost in the debris is his groundbreaking impact on our contemporary use of language.
All it took to see it was for Trump to lead us to the edge of a giant, steaming “shithole.”
This is hardly the first time the 45th president’s colorful vocabulary, both spoken and tweeted, has made headlines.
Remember “covfefe,” the nonsense word he coined last year that instantly became a Merriam-Webster word of the year candidate?
That was harmless enough. “Shithole” is anything but — certainly not when used, as Trump reportedly used it in a meeting with senators last week, to describe Haiti and other countries that send brown-skinned immigrants to our shores.
I get no illicit pleasure repeating that eight-letter word. If anything, it’s double trouble for someone raised as I was: a pastor’s son who grew up knowing, fully and painfully, the consequences of four-letter words.
Journalists, while seldom compared to the clergy, espouse similar values. We’ve been trained since the days of hot lead type to respect that words have weight, and curse words are some of the heaviest.
At The News Tribune and every other newspaper where I’ve worked, reporters know not to make a habit of slipping f-bombs or s-bombs into their stories. Editors stand vigilant should reporters forget what they know.
In my 12-plus years in the TNT newsroom, I was part of several editor-reporter huddles where we debated whether to quote a subject who spoke in an off-color way.
It’s often a tough call.
On the one hand, declining to publish profane language isn’t a Victorian nicety; it’s a means to promote respectful public discourse. But we have to balance that against giving accurate descriptions and holding public officials to account.
A search of TNT print story archives dating back to 1991 shows that up until last week, we’d published the word “shit” a total of 19 times.
We’ve often reserved it for capturing authentic language in high-stakes situations — Tacoma cops involved in standoffs, JBLM soldiers facing mortal danger in Iraq, witnesses stunned by the Atlas foundry explosion in 2007.
Once, 27 years ago, a columnist uncorked it while quoting the famously plainspoken Gov. Dixy Lee Ray.
As for presidential use of the word prior to Trump, the last instance in in our pages, ironically, was a quote from our most scrutinized president, Richard Nixon.
“I don’t give a shit what happens,” Nixon was caught saying on tape while trying to thwart release of material that ultimately led to his resignation.
Fewer than 20 “shit” references in nearly three decades? It seems the TNT makes exceptions to the expletive rule very sparingly.
Then Trump said “shithole” in the most contemptuous way imaginable, and all bets were off. It appeared in the TNT nine times between Thursday and Tuesday.
And it’s not just us; readers have grasped the historic rancidness of the word, repeating it in letters to the editor flowing into our inbox.
Many U.S. news organizations are like-minded on the ground rules of vulgarity. “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim,” said Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post.
Similarly, Tim Grieve, vice president of news for McClatchy, which owns the TNT, said: “To write around it or to soften the word with dashes is to step back from our commitment to accountability journalism.”
To which the linguists and lexicographers of the world sing: Hallelujah! They’re grateful anytime leading media outlets refuse to censor language that’s part of the zeitgeist — words that ought not be ignored or dressed up in a phony camouflage of asterisks.
For no matter how many symbols you put in front of the word “hole,” they tend to carry a condescending tone.
“This little squadron of asterisks gets across to readers that the word in question is too offensive for this classy joint,” says Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper, writing in an essay that voiced full-throated support for newspapers using “shithole.”
From where I sit, there’s no debate that last week’s revealing utterance by our potty-mouth president was newsworthy. That said, it wasn’t the first obscenity to spring from the lips of a U.S. president outside the public eye, and the media bears some responsibility for bringing this one into the mainstream.
Some might worry it reflects an overall coarsening of contemporary language, and that we’re just as culpable repeating it as Trump was saying it.
But in this case, the slippery-slope theory need not apply. On our opinion pages, we’ll stick with the good ol’ disciplined journalism conventions we’ve always lived by.
As long as the president doesn’t tumble back down the hole, there’s no reason for us to, either.
Matt Misterek is editorial page editor of The News Tribune. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org