President Barack Obama called rap star Kanye West “a jackass.” Vice President Joe Biden told a senator to “Gimme a f—-ing break!” Economic adviser Christina Romer declared that Americans had yet to have their "holy s—-” moment over the economy.
Those who pay attention to political rhetoric say an unusual amount of profanity has emanated from this White House – even without counting famously colorful White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel. But before this statement becomes fodder for yet another partisan debate (with conservatives saying Obama is disgracing the presidency, and liberals that the media are once again being unfair), they quickly add that Team Obama is no crasser than administrations past. It’s just that they are being quoted more accurately.
What’s different, according to linguists, media analysts and reporters who’ve covered past administrations is the media: Networks and newspapers have become far more willing to run with quotes, video and audio of political figures and their aides saying things that never used to be repeated. They attribute the growth of the political potty mouth alternately to the proliferation of recording technologies; intense interest in all things Obama; the explosion of new media platforms that both circumvent and push traditional media while sharpening competition; a general coarsening of the public dialogue; or some combination of all of those factors.
“Cursing happened all the time, across the board, wherever you went in the White House or on the trail or in campaign offices – it simply wasn’t written about,” said Haynes Johnson, a former reporter for The Washington Post who covered the campaigns or presidencies of every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, and has written books about the working White House, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and, most recently, the 2008 presidential election.
Presidents Johnson and Nixon were known for their salty tongues. And though they were seldom quoted cursing in contemporary media accounts, coverage of the Watergate tapes – in which Nixon was recorded liberally tossing around vulgarity, as well as disparaging Jews and African Americans– marked the first time many newspapers printed the slang word for manure, and foreshadowed a dilemma common for media outlets in the YouTube era.
The occasion was the release of a secret recording from the infamous White House tapes in which Nixon urged an aide to cover-up the White House’s role in the Watergate break-in, saying in part “I don't give a s—- what happens, I want you all to stonewall it."
Then- New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal explained at the time that the paper did not intend to put the word in regular circulation, famously declaring “We'll only take s—- from the president."
At the Post, Johnson said “we had a huge discussion about this and it finally got in,” but he added “in most of these conversations that I am talking about, there was an understanding that you weren’t going to quote that language. The same way you didn’t write about Jack Kennedy and sex. It was the same attitude,” Johnson said.
“You protected your sources. You did not want to embarrass them. You really wanted to know who these people were, and you wanted them to be honest with you and if they were going to watch their words and watch their language, they’re not going to talk to you.”
Johnson said the more frequent quoting of politicians’ profane proclamations or airing of clips containing them “is part of today’s media environment and the competition to get hot stuff,” but he warned the trend risks making it even more difficult for reporters to get unfiltered access to and information from politicians.
“It erodes further the trust between the government and the news gatherers,” he said. “I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t report what someone said if it’s illuminating. I’m only saying you should tread lightly. Just sprinkling four letter words into your quotations, I think, is ridiculous.”
A story in the October 12 New Yorker about Obama’s economic team was a good example of the kind of unexpurgated language reporters now feel freer to quote.
POLITICO, which had posted the video, later removed it.
In the story, Emanuel demands to know "what the f--- are you guys doing" when Treasury officials spring complicated ideas on him, Biden calls economic adviser Larry Summers "the smartest son of a bitch" and Obama political guru David Axelrod refers to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner as "that poor son of a bitch."
Ryan Lizza, who wrote the story and has become known for his ability to elicit candid talk from key members of Obama's inner circle, said he included the language to give his readers insight into the personalities of the people shaping national economic policy.
“I always try to use quotes that tell the reader a little bit about how this person actually speaks in real life, which hopefully will tell you a little bit about they’re like,” said Lizza, who described swearing as “one of the signifiers of authenticity.”
In a story about the presidential race that ran after Election Day, Lizza quoted top Obama aide Jim Messina saying that being in charge of the campaign's record-setting budget was "like getting the keys to a f---ing Ferrari" and scheduler Alyssa Mastromonaco recounting being told that because of no-drama Team Obama ethos "you can't be a bitch" while working on the campaign. Both are now working in the White House.
Though Lizza, who is also writing a book about Obama’s first year in office, conceded that one of the people quoted cursing in the economic crisis story “would have preferred not to have the word used,” he professed to be unconcerned that reporting that kind of language would curtail his access. No one quoted swearing in his responded to messages from POLITICO asking whether they avoid talking to reporters who quote them so accurately.
As for the New Yorker, which specializes in nuanced, long-form narrative journalism, Lizza said, "we don't have an official policy that I know of" dictating when profanity can - and can't - be used.
POLITICO generally discourages including swearing, and many more traditional media outlets have stricter policies, requiring profanity to somehow be essential to a story in order to be included, even in quotes from a politician.
The Los Angeles Times flatly states in its internal policy that “Obscenities, profanity, vulgarities and coarse language, even in their milder forms, should not be used in The Times -- in print or online -- unless they are germane to the essence of a story. … attempts to be merely colorful, vivid, clever or conversational, or to reflect common practices of other media, do not meet that standard.”
The New York Times in 2006 quoted former President George W. Bush, unknowingly recorded during an international summit in Russia, swearing in describing Hezbollah aggression towards Israel. But the paper – and many others – did not quote Bush in 2000 when another live microphone caught him describing one of the Times’s own reporters, Adam Clymer, as a “major league a—hole,” and Vice President Dick Cheney agreeing with him.
“I was a little disappointed that he didn’t call me ‘world class,’” Clymer joked to POLITICO. A veteran of nearly 40 years covering national politics, Clymer remembers it being a lot more difficult to get a quoted curse into print years ago. He recalled that when he covered the 1972 presidential election for The Baltimore Sun, he had to go over the national editor’s head to include a quote from Democratic nominee George McGovern telling a heckler in Michigan: “Kiss my a--!’
McGovern is "really a very mild-mannered guy, so it was evidence of the degree of frustration with his political situation," Clymer said. He thinks that swearing has become more common in political coverage in recent years "because of the general coarsening of the American vocabulary. These words are used by more people who wouldn't have used them before, and so it seems like a more normal part of speech.”
Another factor, according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is that the mainstream media are being pushed to expand the range of acceptable language by bloggers, tweeters and YouTube users, who are able to post audio and video files documenting the words of politicians.
“We’re rapidly approaching the point where anybody in public life is going to have to assume that anything they say outside of the privacy of their personal staff or family could actually be not just quoted verbatim, but also recorded on video,” said Rosensteil. “And once it’s on YouTube, it could show up on the CBS Evening News.”
That dynamic, he said, makes it almost impossible “for politicians to maintain the kind of formality that politicians could maintain in the middle of the 20th century.”
Stories quoting politicians cursing sometimes seem intended to elicit shock by playing to American puritanical instincts, but may actually help make those quoted seem more sympathetic, according to Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who’s written two books on the subject: “Cursing in America” and “Why We Curse.”
“In a way, it makes these politicians seem more real,” Jay said, “like they have emotions and they get angry and they get excited about things.”
The mixed reactions to off-color language on the part of the media came to the fore after Obama in a video feed received by television stations before an interview with CNBC called the rapper West “a jackass” for interrupting a presentation at a music video awards show.
“Obama just looks like a regular guy telling it like it is,” wrote columnist Henry Blodget in a blog post that deemed the remark “brilliant.”
But ABC News reporter Terry Moran in the Twitter post – or tweet – that first drew wide notice to Obama’s insult, wrote "Pres. Obama just called Kanye West a "jackass" for his outburst at VMAs when Taylor Swift won. Now THAT'S presidential."
Moran quickly removed the tweet and ABC News apologized for his “prematurely tweet(ing) a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview.”