Crossing the ‘S-word’ rubicon

As I wrote yesterday, the decision by some news organizations to broadcast the obscenity allegedly used by President Donald Trump on Thursday was groundbreaking. There’s no going back now.

But in reading NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen’s description of how NPR became a convert from its original decision not to use the word, I couldn’t help but recall the last time a single word caused such a public radio ruckus.

It was the word “lie“.

NPR refused to use it to characterize Donald Trump’s long-standing assertions that President Barack Obama was not born an American, and therefore could not be president.

That put the news bosses of NPR against New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who said he owed it to the paper’s readers to use the term.

“It would almost be illiterate to have not called the birther thing a lie,” he said.

“We should not be telling you how to think. We should give you the information to decide what you think,” NPR’s senior editor Michael Oreskes responded. He’s since left NPR over sexual misconduct.

That debate seems almost quaint now, but the underlying theme of a news organization’s duty is the same.

NPR initially didn’t use the ‘S-word’ on Thursday and for good reason. It wasn’t the story. The obvious test of race to assess worth was.

“At the end of the day I knew it would be harder to tell the story without using the word but I thought it was an effort worth making because the larger story was, it’s not that he was talking about ‘shithole countries’ it’s that he was comparing people, and disparaging people,” Terence Samuel, NPR’s deputy managing editor told Jensen. “I thought that was the story worth telling. Given what we know about how the president talks, the shocking language was actually not that shocking. So I thought particularly for broadcast the word could be distracting.”

[An aside: MPR fielded only two phone calls about the use of the word. One was a complaint because there was a child in the car and the other objected to the phrase “racially tinged” rather than using “racist”.]

By Friday morning, though, it seemed the word was coming out of the radio so often that someone must’ve created an NPR drinking game.

Not since then DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch invoked the phrase “Republican whore” did it seem newsreaders were running giddy with their freedom before the inevitable apprehension.

In a memo to his staff, Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards and practices editor, put a limit on how many times it could be used, Jensen said.

But, the word should be heard very sparingly. No more than one use of the word each hour in the main shows is enough. Newscast, as you always do, stagger the reports.

Don’t include it in the body of spots that will be repeated throughout the day. Do give listeners a heads-up that a vulgar word is coming their way. We of course will continue to add the context that makes clear why this is important. Obviously, the president’s tweet is important information.

But Memmott said there was good reason to use the word. Its use was impacting diplomatic relationships and renewing charges of racism.

And it’s the latter reference that recalls the big “lie” debate. The undermining of the former president’s citizenship renewed charges of racism, too. And, if you believe a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, it was a lie.

That lie, if not the motivation, in the “birther movement” is obvious now, but we don’t get a do-over on that decision.

In the end, though, it was easier to get S-word to come out of your radio this morning, than “lie”. That seems, at best, problematic. The president might use another phrase.

Memmott, by the way, will be on All Things Considered this evening to explain the decision.

[Update 5:45 p.m.] – Here’s Memmott’s segment on ATC.