Trump's 'Shithole' Comment and the New Era of Newspapers Publishing Profanity

Updated | As you read this, newspapers across the country are debating whether or not to publish the term "shithole" on the front cover of Friday's print edition, in full view of sweet children and grandmothers.

Blame Trump. The foul-mouthed (and unambiguously racist) president referred to African countries and Haiti as "shithole countries" on Thursday, according to a Washington Post account of an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers. During a conversation about immigration, Trump wondered aloud: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?"

Subsequently, the Post reported on Trump's vulgarity by placing the word "shithole" in a headline—a first for the historic paper. (The newsworthiness of the president's language would seem to override the desire to shield readers from profanity.)

NBC, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico and—yes—Newsweek all quickly followed suit: Shithole, shithole, shithole, shithole, shithole. "Stable genius" is last week's story. "Shithole countries" is the new grotesque Trumpism that will lodge itself in your brain for days, like a particularly vile pop song.

In news alerts and headlines, though, the newspaper of record held back:

Why? The New York Times is famously skittish about profanity. Just two weeks ago, the newspaper published an article about an award-winning play called Pussy Sludge without deigning to print the word "pussy." (The resulting headline: "Gracie Gardner Wins Prize for Play With Unprintable Title.")

Related: The New York Times is eliminating the public editor role when it needs it the most

But Trump—arguably the most foul-mouthed president since Richard Nixon—appears to have dragged the paper into a new era of profanity. Although the headline is mild ("Trump Alarms Lawmakers With Disparaging Words for Haiti and Africa"), the word "shithole" appears twice in the story. The word has never appeared in the Times before, according to a curious Twitter account called @NYT_first_said, which tweets out words the first time they appear in the publication.


— New New York Times (@NYT_first_said) January 11, 2018

Times are changing—and America's president is cursing. "New York Times policy [used to be] no cursing even in a quote," reports one Newsweek editor, "which has made some of the profiles I've done for them quite challenging." But in recent months, the paper has published phrases like "tough shit" and "scares the shit out of me" when they appear in quotes.

And back in July, the paper published now-infamous terminology like "fucking paranoid schizophrenic" and "I'm not trying to suck my own cock" in articles about Anthony Scaramucci's meltdown.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks to Marine One prior to departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 5, as he travels for a weekend with Republican lawmakers at Camp David in Maryland. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Some readers were outraged. But the quotes were relevant. "The Times published Mr. Scaramucci's profanity after top editors, including our executive editor, Dean Baquet, discussed whether it was proper," Cliff Levy, deputy managing editor for digital, explained at the time. "We decided that it was newsworthy that a top aide to President Trump used such language."

We've reached out to a Times spokeperson regarding the decision to use the term "shithole" in the article on Thursday. The paper has also addressed the decision in a statement on Twitter:

Although it's not in the article's headline, "shithole" is in the lede: Phil Corbett, The Times's standards editor, explains why.

— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 12, 2018

Meanwhile, several major cable news networks also qualified or danced around the president's terminology:


— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 11, 2018

What does it all mean? Nothing. Trump is ushering in a new era of family newspapers publishing profanity. And if we're being honest, the word "shit" is the least offensive aspect of his bigoted and egregious latest comment.

Update:A New York Times spokeperson provided the following explanation from Phil Corbett, the paper's associate managing editor for standards: "The specific, vulgar language the president was reported to have used was really central to the news here. So it seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly. We wanted to be sure readers would fully understand what the story was about."