UPDATE: ‘Shit’ Happens, As Most News Outlets Report Bush Profanity

By: E&P Staff

In an online chat today at washingtonpost.com, the newpaper’s media critic Howard Kurtz was asked about the widely-reported “open mike” in St. Petersburg on Sunday that caught President Bush uttering a certain curse in conversation with Tony Blair. “Will newspapers print Bush’s remarks unedited, as they should?” asked the reader.

Kurtz replied, “S—, I don’t know. I’ll report on that tomorrow. The Post did famously print the F-word when Dick Cheney told Pat Leahy to perform an unnatural act on himself, but I don’t know what the decision will be on this one.”

While it was then too early to know what papers would do in print on Tuesday, the verdict was already in on Web usage. Many top papers and news organizations freely printed the word on Monday, although The Associated Press, following its stylebook, offered two versions.

At the Web site of Kurtz’s own paper, Peter Baker quoted Bush: “What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over.” (On Tuesday, it would turn out, the Post indeed did print that “shit” right on the front page of the C section.)

Others stepping in “shit” on the Web include The New York Times, Newsday, Los Angeles Times, CBS News, Reuters, MSNBC, CNN, the BBC, Financial Times, Forbes, McClatchy’s Washington bureau and Bloomberg — even the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune.

A search of the New York Times online archives reveals that apparently it had never in its history used “shit” before, beyond one quote from the Nixon “Wategate” tapes in the mid-1970s. Perhaps that’s why, after E&P’s initial report, the Times revised earlier accounts to eliminate the word and replace it was a reference to “a vulgarity,” and also scrubbed its site.

AOL featured the Reuters story on its home page but — shades of the old Nixon tapes — substituted “expletive” for the bad word.

Some sites helpfully provided audio, video or transcripts of the episode.

But Martin Crutsinger, an AP economics reporter, quoted Bush this way: “See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s— and it’s over.” The AP video, according to USA Today, also included one second of silence covering the offending word.

For stories sent to member organizations where editors would further scrutinize the copy, the AP included the Bush quote with the obscene word unchanged, but flagged it, according to AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. In other versions that AP posts directly, such as on more than 400 newspaper Web sites, the quote included the word with hyphens replacing some letters.

“We did put the full word on some of our European wires,” Carroll added. “They needed to know it so they can translate it. We try to give people the discretion to do what they need to do.”

The AP Stylebook urges that profanities not be used but gives leeway on direct quotes.

A lengthy entry in the New York Times style book about such language notes, “The Times virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones. In part the concern is for the newspaper?s welcome in classrooms and on breakfast tables in diverse communities nationwide. But a larger concern is for the newspaper?s character. The Times differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes.”

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