Trump Tests the F-Bomb Policy at The New York Times

The newspaper is swapping out “barnyard expletives” for truly colorful swears.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The New York Times likes to think of itself as a family newspaper. It is also the self-described paper of record. It may not be either, but it’s definitely not both all the time.

Take, for example, the moment when the Times had to choose whether to quote the new White House communications director in a particularly colorful tirade against his colleagues. Anthony Scaramucci, who joined the Trump administration last week, eviscerated the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and the administration’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, in an interview with a New Yorker reporter on Wednesday.

“Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said.

And also: “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock.”

Then, for good measure: “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the president. I’m here to serve the country.”

In this case, the Times really went for it, publishing all three quotes verbatim. Maybe not every journalist would make the same call, but most would understand why the Times went this route. Many publications try to avoid gratuitous foul language, even in quotes, unless the meaning of the thing being conveyed depends on it. Otherwise, matters of taste notwithstanding, bad language is often just distracting. Plenty of people curse in casual conversation; rarely is it actually meaningful.

But when the White House director of communications uses language like, well, you know, to describe the president’s inner circle, it’s in the public interest to know exactly what was said. (The Atlantic quoted Scaramucci, too, by the way.) The Times didn’t immediately grant my request to speak with an editor Thursday night, but a spokesperson did direct me to comments by the paper’s deputy managing editor, which he’d published to Twitter.

The Times published Scaramucci’s profanity only after top editors, including the executive editor Dean Baquet, “discussed whether it was proper,” Clifford Levy wrote. “We concluded that it was newsworthy that a top Trump aide used such language. And we didn’t want our readers to have to search elsewhere to find out what Scaramucci said.” Given what the newspaper has had to navigate before, it’s likely the vulgar reference to Bannon was the most difficult call among the three. Indeed, wrote one of the top editors at the Times, Sam Dolnick, the debate was “one for the ages.”

“A couple of years ago I got in trouble for ‘hand job.’ In a quote,” tweeted Emily Bazelon, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. In fact, Bazelon’s reference to hand jobs, at least the reference that appears in her 2014 magazine story about college romance, was not a direct quote but a line she paraphrased.

Either way, it’s not like the Times never prints vulgar language.

There was the Access Hollywood tape last fall, which featured Trump bragging about being able to grab women without their consent. The Times repeatedly printed the vulgar terms he used. It also published an offensive term—uh, rhymes with “blunt”—that a Trump adviser had used to describe Hillary Clinton, only to remove the word from an op-ed after the fact with a brief editor’s note flagging the change.

There have been other instances in which obscenities found their way into the Times. F-bombs are sprinkled throughout book excerpts, for example, and in web-only extras—quoting the poet Allen Ginsberg, in the case of a 2007 blog post. The word “fuck” also appeared in the full text of the Starr Report, which detailed President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and which the Times printed in 1998. The report included, for instance, a quote from Lewinsky saying she wished the president would “acknowledge ... that he helped fuck up my life.” In a separate story that day, the paper described how the graphic language in the report was making things challenging for newscasters, in particular. “On CBS, Bob Schieffer looked profoundly embarrassed as he read cold from the report,” the Times wrote. Another Clinton-era curse word that made it into the paper? “Dumb-ass,” which Rolling Stone had mistakenly quoted Clinton as having said, a dispute that the Times covered.

The Starr Report, published by The New York Times in 1998, tested the paper’s language standards. (Screenshot from the New York Times)

It isn’t so easy to track the vulgarities the Times has printed, however, in part because it has used text-reading software to digitize much of its archival material. On one hand, this is why the newspaper’s archival presentation is so impressive. But it’s also why a search for any given curse word is liable to turn up a ton of false positives. To a computer, for instance, the 1975 headline “Court Shift on Sanity Debated” scans as “Court Shit on Sanity Debated.” Which is funny, sure, but not actually what the paper printed at the time. The Times online archive is full of this sort of thing.

A computer-generated headline from a 1951 New York Times story appears to contain an expletive, but the original version of the story did not. (Screenshot from The New York Times)
Here’s that 1951 story as it actually appeared in the Times. (NYT)

The newspaper’s reporters have not infrequently written themselves into contortions to avoid foul language. “Barnyard expletive” is a favorite cop-out. (Personally, I prefer “baloney” if you want to get cute about it, but maybe that’s just me.) Mostly, they end up describing unsavory words in vague terms like “a vulgarity that refers to part of the male anatomy” or “a vulgarism for a part of the female anatomy.” Countless Times articles about George Carlin, the comedian who was famous for his bit about the “seven words you can never say on television,” dutifully avoided printing them. (A blessing, perhaps, in the YouTube age, as they’re best delivered by Carlin himself.) “A Master of Words, Including Some You Can’t Use in a Headline,” one article’s headline cheekily acknowledged.

These days, the paper tends to find creative workarounds for foul language. In previous eras, however, they’ve avoided covering a story altogether on account of vulgarity. A 1901 story described a trial with testimony that was “of such a character” that the Times could not print it. (They may not have had a choice; the Times noted that the papers in London, where the trial was underway, had refused to publish the testimony first.)

In a 2007 story about a hardcore punk band, the writer Kelefa Sanneh laid out clearly what it would take for the Times to print the group’s colorful name. “Well, the name won’t be printed in these pages,” Sanneh wrote, “not unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake.”

“I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter,” Scaramucci tweeted on Thursday night. “It won’t happen again.”