Lexicon Valley

Profanity Censorship Is Arbitrary. Stop Doing It.

The Republican presidential nominee proved to have a colorful vocabulary in footage leaked earlier this month.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

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 Sept. 23, the Times website posted a video of Charlotte, North Carolina, police officers’ deadly confrontation with Scott, which his wife, Rakeyia, recorded on her cellphone.


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 cataloged 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 its 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.