Media Take Different Routes When Obscenities Become The News

Aug 4, 2017

Last week, a colorful rant by the short-lived White House Communications Director left media across the country and world scrambling to figure out what to do with some pretty vulgar words.

Some newspapers opted to introduce new terms onto their front pages, and broadcasters from CNN’s Anderson Cooper - to hosts on NPR - chose to dance around the statements Anthony Scaramucci made to a New Yorker reporter by “blanking” and “bleeping” out the offensive terms.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said the decisions made by media organizations ran the gamut. Most, however, start at the same place: asking whether the obscenities are critical to the public’s understanding of what happened.

Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker reporter who broke the story about the infighting among White House insiders, included full quotes from Scaramucci. McBride’s count uncovered “6 f-bombs and 3 other very vulgar references to genitalia.” (Here's a follow-up of the incident released Thursday, including audio of Scaramucci. They New Yorker this time bleeped out the terms.)

While major newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post opted to include the terms at least once in their reports, the Associated Press wire service for hundreds of newspapers and broadcast outlets avoided the words all together. 

The stories by the AP included “not even a hint of what the metaphor was,” McBride said.

At the other end of the spectrum, digital outlets such as BuzzFeed were quick to include the terms, she said, partly because obscenities are already commonplace online.

Broadcasters were less likely to include the terms. Those that broadcast over public airwaves, such as NPR and traditional network TV, are restricted by Federal Communications Commission rules and would be subject to fines. Cable TV outlets are not restricted, McBride said, but they are more reluctant to toss out obscenities to an audience unprepared to hear it.

“Unlike reading something in a newspaper, your television is on and you don’t have a lot of warning, even if they give you a warning that they are about to say something vulgar,” she said.

The terms used in Scaramucci’s very public rant aren’t likely to appear every day, but McBride said they are a reflection of a power structure that’s been around high-level business and politics for a long time.

“There’s always been a history of very powerful people using foul language as a way to demonstrate their power. But we bring it out into the open much more so now,” she said. “I’m convinced that there were probably calls from very powerful politicians and their representatives to reporters that were similar decades ago that just never saw the light of day.”