Reporting Offensive Language from the White House – Part II

A couple of weeks ago President Trump generated a lot of news by making some highly offensive remarks about the country of Haiti, the continent of Africa, and presumably about a couple of countries in central America. The story resulted in The Washington Post and other news outlets using the word “shithole” in a headline for the first time, though the major story should not have been the word but rather then president’s attitude toward these countries.

Nevertheless, the president’s newsworthy language forced the press to confront their standards for using offensive language. (I wrote about it in Part 1 of this blog post last week.)

But this was not the first time the press has had to confront newsworthy offensive language coming out of the White House. In 2010 after President Obama’s health care legislation passed, Vice President Joe Biden was heard on an open mic saying to President Obama, “This is a big fucking deal!”

Back in 2006, I wrote a commentary for the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail about salty White House language.  I’m reprinting it here:

Back in 1969, Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran a memorable sketch in which a reporter interviews a Mr. Sopwith who claims to be a “camel spotter” but who actually seems to be looking for and describing trains.  When the reporter points out to Mr. Sopwith that he seems to actually be a trainspotter, the man replies, “Oh, you’re no fun anymore.”

I wonder if we’ve gotten to that point in the news business.  If a journalist tries to write anything remotely fun about the president, someone comes up and complains that the reporter and his or her story is hopelessly biased.

Take, for example, President Bush’s recent use of the “S Word” to describe what is going on in Lebanon.  As you all know by now, President Bush was overheard using the “S Word” in a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a dinner in Russia. What made this utterance newsworthy was that the exchange was taped by Russian television. Bush could be heard saying:

“See, the irony is that what they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s—, and it’s over,” Bush told Blair during their discussion 

Now in my mind, this is completely different from Vice President Cheney telling a member of the Senate to go “f—” himself back in June of 2004. President Bush was using colorful language in what he thought (mistakenly) was a private conversation, and he used it in a way that few people could take offense at. Let’s face it, there is a lot of “S Word” going down in Lebanon these days.  And it’s certainly in character for the president.  He affectionately calls his adviser Karl Rove “turd blossom,” a reference to a flower that grows out of cow patties in Texas.

The Chicago Tribune’s blog The Swamp, produced by the paper’s Washington bureau, gave lightly humorous spin to the president’s comments to Blair during the G8 summit dinner, noting that Bush could be heard chewing his food on the tape.  The blog entry was great because it gave a fun, human look at world leaders caught saying something candid and heartfelt at an otherwise scripted event.

What I find fascinating is that the very first response posted to the blog entry was to accuse the Chicago Tribune of liberal bias for reporting the story and including the detail about Bush chewing.  The next hundred or so posts to the blog focused not on any news value of the story, but whether the story exhibited bias, whether you could love America without loving the president, and irony of calling a conservative paper liberal.

For the record, the Chicago Tribune is one of the most prominent conservative papers in the country.  A look at the paper’s Statement of Principles shows that, “The Tribune believes in the traditional principles of limited government; maximum individual responsibility; and minimum restriction of personal liberty, opportunity and enterprise. It believes in free markets, free will and freedom of expression.”

It’s that belief in “freedom of expression” that tends to get lost these days. I think most of the major papers do a pretty good job of trying to report on the president.  But it’s all too rare that we get to see a look at the president’s personable and thoughtful private side as an interesting contrast to his always on-message public persona.  The press has learned to be cautious in what they say for fear of  being charged with being biased.  And that’s a shame because then the news really isn’t fun anymore.

(Originally published July 19, 2006, in the Charleston Daily Mail)

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