Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times

The following is a guest post by Blake Eskin, an editor and writer who has kept track of expletive avoidance by the New York Times, with his Tumblr Fit to Print and the #fittoprint hashtag on Twitter.

Ben Zimmer called the dissemination of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush a “watershed moment in public profanity,” since major news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times presented Trump’s remarks without bowdlerization. Even Times subscribers who avoid the internet and cable news had to confront the words “pussy” and “fuck” on Page One, above the fold and before the jump, on their way to the Saturday crossword.

Let’s compare this with how the Times handled the death of Keith Scott two weeks earlier.

On the afternoon of September 23, the Times website posted a video of Charlotte police officers’ deadly confrontation with Scott, which his wife, Rakeyia, recorded on her cell phone.

In the video, the officers yell repeatedly at Keith Scott to “get out of the fucking car.”

After the shooting, Rakeyia Scott screams, “He better not be fucking dead.”

Her cellphone video appeared on the Times website with a transcript below, profanity and all. Then the Times added an article by Richard Fausset and Yamiche Alcindor above the transcript. At 2:38 p.m, according to NewsDiffs, their article included both those quotations, and five mentions of the word “fucking” all told.

By 9:25 p.m, NewsDiffs shows, this article had been edited to have the officers saying “‘drop the gun’ or some variation of it,” and quotes Rakeyia Scott as saying, “He better not be [expletive] dead.” The verbatim transcript disappeared into the video, as subtitles — and this text is not searchable through the Times site or Google. Nor were they printed in the Saturday paper, where the article appeared on Page One.

If you look at either situation as an isolated event, there’s a logic to each editorial decision. Politico quoted Times editors explaining why they let Trump say “fuck.” And no doubt editors had their reasons for removing the word “fucking” from the mouths of Rakeyia Scott and the police officers yelling at her husband.

Case by case, you may agree with that logic, or you can argue with it. As I wrote about the Keith Scott story before the Donald Trump tape surfaced,

When can a reasonable person curse, if not in grief and despair?

If you look at these two cases together, then you can ask why profanity is necessary to convey the depth of Donald Trump’s depravity, but not to express the intensity of the Charlotte police’s show of force or, after the shooting, the depth of Rakeyia Scott’s loss.

There are differences: Trump is a presidential candidate; Scott, until she made this recording, was a private citizen, a black woman whose husband had a traumatic brain injury. Scott family lawyers gave her cellphone video to the Times; the last thing Trump wanted was for the public to watch his busride with Billy Bush.

Once upon a time, public profanity was a rarity, but that’s long behind us. Chronicle, a tool for “visualizing language usage in New York Times news coverage throughout its history,” makes that clear:

Using the Twitter hashtag #fittoprint and then on the Fit to Print Tumblr, I’ve catalogued hundreds of examples of Timesian expletive avoidance over the past several years, as well as a few cases where the Times did publish expletives.

One problem with censorship is that it is arbitrary. You can name the band Pussy Riot but in the same article call Perfect Pussy “an unprintable name”, even though you ran that article about Perfect Pussy’s lead singer five months earlier. A homeless girl’s mother can say “fucking” in an exclusive five-part series with a fancy layout and Pulitzer aspirations, but the widow of the latest Black Lives Matter victim can’t, except in the subtitles of the video, and on the video itself. But Donald Trump can.

This is nonsense. Arbitrary nonsense. The New York Times used to have control over what information reached their audience, but that’s long behind us, too.

So is the watershed moment for public profanity, as the Times archives show.

It’s time for editors at the Times — and at other news organization that overestimate their role as gatekeepers — to acknowledge the reality of today’s media climate.

Please publish what people said and stop wasting everyone’s time.

20 thoughts on “Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times

  1. prior.. October 10, 2016 / 6:31 am

    Enjoyed this post so much – read it again to soak it up….
    Key takeaway for me is this:
    “One problem with censorship is that it is arbitrary….’
    True that.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. loveeachotherblog October 10, 2016 / 12:35 pm

    Hi Ben – I don’t trust the New York Times or most papers, for that matter – as they usually have some vested interest telling what they can and can’t f#@@ing say, print, cover etc, etc ….. you get it?

    Liked by 6 people

  3. annwjwhite October 10, 2016 / 12:56 pm

    There are still laws on the book in many states making profanity illegal. It’s become a fad to constantly speak using profanities. If you swear, you are stronger, seems to be the current mind bent. It’s a shame that society can’t tell the difference between sensationalism and emotional outbursts. I wish more people understood what you are saying.

    Liked by 7 people

    • jiisand October 10, 2016 / 2:54 pm

      Profanity hits people in different ways out of personal culture backgrounds. I’ve lived long enough and been around enough to find profanity irrelevant insofar as emotion is concerned. It’s handy as a scream against fate but there are far more seriously disturbing things going on in the world to not waste useful anger over mere emphatic words. The obsolete puritanism of language strikes me as quite posturing over nothing serious.

      Liked by 5 people

  4. jiisand October 10, 2016 / 1:28 pm

    During my service in the US Air Force in WWII every third word everybody spoke was fuck. Yet in the novel “The Naked and the Dead¤ fuck was forbidden so Mailor had to substitute fug for fuck for which he was considered funny. Nowadays fuck in every action film and many others is so common and unnoticed that any avoidance of the word. I find Trump a rather unattractive candidate but his rough language seems to me right in character. He is perfectly open about the person he is. Unfortunately I find his type of person too much of a bully to appreciate. I find Clinton a typical political phony and that seems very acceptable today but neither one, to my taste, is worthy of trying to correct the total mess the country seems to be in. This is a real problem for me because these days require very strong expletives and all the old ones are totally worn out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theworldistroubled October 10, 2016 / 10:56 pm

      Well sir, try the east end of London. We laughing and asking ourself show these 2 ended up as front runners to run the strongest nation in the world.

      Liked by 3 people

      • jiisand October 11, 2016 / 5:10 am

        It’s very fascinating to see how troubled the media and perhaps a large sector of the American public have become over the open use of street language and obvious sexist remarks while placidly swallowing the open butchering of millions of innocents and torturing of admittedly innocent prisoners and overthrowing democratically elected governments throughout the world by both Democratic and Republican administrations to establish US friendly dictatorships. The two astoundingly unqualified candidates from both political parties makes the scene a wild farce out of Hell. I have abdicated from the human species and find fellowship with the pigeons and seagulls who somewhat accurately defecate with proper emotional expression on humanity. Unfortunately I am not permitted legally to join their protests.

        Liked by 2 people

      • theworldistroubled October 11, 2016 / 12:12 pm

        Check my blogs and see if you agree with any of my comments..I think we could be on the same page in our notions..

        Liked by 2 people

      • theworldistroubled October 17, 2016 / 1:23 pm

        Well said..we both agree. What next ? We shall just await..


    • CGHill October 13, 2016 / 3:36 am

      Still, Mailer’s convention wound up being fugging funny: Dorothy Parker, upon being introduced to Mailer, said “So you’re the man who can’t spell fuck.”


      • jiisand October 13, 2016 / 4:10 am

        It was in reference to Parker’s remark that Mailor was considered funny.

        To go beyond this I must indicate that Trump displays all the characteristics to pretty well upset the political apple cart in every direction. He is obviously a monstrously egotistical boor who, if he gains power, will probably totally screw up all the immensely stupid calculations for the USA to confront China and Russia and start a nuclear war which will destroy us all. This is what Clinton and her aggressive ninnies are working so hard to bring about. I am fully aware that Trump will probably create a good deal of wreckage in the country and sow fury in all directions from all sorts of people out of his ignorance and ineptitude. But the country can recover from that and even Trump may educate himself a bit in the hassle. But with Clinton and Obama’s more cultivated progress towards a nuclear exchange out of Russia and China it is most unlikely civilization will recover in less than a thousand years, if at all. Trump’s clumsy offensive stupidity is much preferred to Clinton’s planetary annihilation,


  5. EarthGround October 10, 2016 / 4:09 pm

    Cursing is emotive and bodily rejection reaction. Or a harm spell. The newspapers should be immune to it, either way. If Trump and Clinton swore on each other, it would heal the nation, with first rate tragic comedy. 1st round debate condensed: You prick. You cunt. Staredown. Long awkward silence. Anderson Cooper faints. Revives, makes them Shake hands.

    Now, they are free to Come out debating. Just let them curse, and get it out in the open for real cursive Americans to poor have pc or tablet. Texting is for wimps. I bet Hillary can swear better than Trump.

    Release the Kraken! Can’t wait for a salty Hillary tape. A fly landed on her face during the debate.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Karl Drobnic October 10, 2016 / 7:40 pm

    There’s a difference between cursing and being vulgar. Equating vulgarity with cursing demeans cursing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Rebel_X_256 October 10, 2016 / 7:48 pm

    Sadly, we live in a world where hypocrisy takes a front seat and the issues of importance are rarely given the value they hold. One wonders just how far the boundaries of humanity will be pushed until we fully digress into savagery. If we haven’t already

    Liked by 2 people

  8. theworldistroubled October 10, 2016 / 10:53 pm

    I really can’t Fathom how these two ended up as front runners for the worlds most powerful nation.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. alienafilliate October 11, 2016 / 8:28 am

    I can’t watch a movie with the grandkids in the house… the “F” word seems to make up much of the script.
    Dum script writers low level vocabularies ??????????


  10. William Hill October 11, 2016 / 4:56 pm

    As witnessed in the media today, there is more graphic exposure to violence to persons (physical assults, maimings and murder), as is our exposure to more violence to language (profanity, expletives and profanities, and unprintables); the more uncivilized society becomes, the correlation to language is evident, cause and effect. Unfortunately, we’re become numb to both by repeatedly being exposed to them; we no longer react with appropriate abhorrence and demand cessation, we meekly sit by and allow it to happen even as it appalls us. I’m no saint, I cuss at times, but I’d never if I knew it would offend someone. And I find it offensive when others do without caring.


  11. Katie Broussard October 12, 2016 / 4:19 pm

    This post was so good to read. It’s appalling what the election has come to in 2016.


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