Don't Print Stupid S%#t: Should Newspapers Censor The "Obama Doctrine"?

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June 4 2014 12:45 PM

Don't Print Stupid S%#t: Should Newspapers Censor The "Obama Doctrine"?  

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The slogan "Don't Do Stupid Shit" has worked its way into numerous journalistic descriptions of the "Obama Doctrine," even when a publication is normally reluctant to publish profanity. For example, Mike Allen of Politico explains that Politico Playbook—his "briefing on what's driving the day in Washington"—"rarely prints a four-letter word—our nephews are loyal readers. But we are, in this case, because that is the precise phrase President Obama and his aides are using in their off-the-record chats with journalists."

The New York Times, on the other hand, has only printed the slogan in expurgated fashion—this despite the fact that late Times editor Abe Rosenthal created a presidential exemption from the ban on printing "shit" in the Nixon era. As Rosenthal reportedly said after including "shit" in quotes of Watergate tape transcripts, "We'll only take shit from the President."

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The Times has referred to the Obama slogan four times already (including twice very recently, on June 1st), but softened "shit" to "stuff" each time:

While Mr. Obama will most likely shun such colloquialisms at West Point, the baseball analogy is an apt summary of his philosophy. In other conversations, aides say, the president has used a saltier variation of the common-sense saying, "Don't do stupid stuff."
(Mark Landler, "Obama to Detail a Broader Foreign Policy Agenda," 5/25/14)

In private conversations, the president has used a saltier variation of the phrase, "don't do stupid stuff" — brushing aside as reckless those who say the United States should consider enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria or supplying arms to Ukrainian troops.
(Mark Landler, "Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats," 5/29/14)

In his second term, a time that presidents typically set about cementing their legacies as statesmen, Mr. Obama has instead settled on a minimalist foreign policy — one that he laid out at West Point and sums up with a saltier version of the phrase, "don't do stupid stuff."
"There is a fundamental and profound distinction between this speech and the earlier speeches," said David J. Rothkopf, the publisher of Foreign Policy magazine. "The Nobel Prize speech was infused with hope, ambition, and the desire to better the world. This speech is built around the idea of not doing stupid stuff."
(Mark Landler, "In Obama's Speeches, a Shifting Tone on Terror," 6/1/14)

When President Obama sits down to write his foreign policy memoir he may be tempted to use as his book title the four words he reportedly uses privately to summarize the Obama doctrine: "Don't Do Stupid Stuff" (with "stuff" sometimes defined more spicily).
(Thomas Friedman, "Obama's Foreign Policy Book," 6/1/14)

So why would the Times print Nixon's "shit" but not Obama's? Hard to say, especially since there's another presidential precedent: the Times didn't mince words in 2006 when George W. Bush was overheard saying, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." The unexpurgated quote appeared both in a news story and a Thomas Friedman op/ed.

And since then, there have been non-presidential exceptions as well. In 2007, the Times quoted the transcript of a call believed to be from Republican political consultant Roger Stone to Gov. Eliot Spitzer's father: "There is not a goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-shit son can do about it."

More recently, "shit" appeared in the Times in "Invisible Child," a multi-part story last December about a homeless girl in Brooklyn named Dasani. Part 4 ("Finding Strength in the Bonds of Her Siblings") includes this line from Dasani's mother Chanel: "I don't give a shit if she's crying." The fourth installment was also notable for not one but two appearances of "fuck" in lines attributed to Chanel: "Shut the fuck up" and "She think she some-fucking-body." The F-bombs were noteworthy enough to warrant discussion by the Times's public editor Margaret Sullivan ("'Invisible Child': Behind the Scenes, Before and After," 12/12/13), though the S-bomb wasn't explicitly mentioned.

In her column on the Dasani series, Sullivan quoted Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, as saying, "Our basic guidelines about avoiding vulgarities and obscenities haven't changed, but we all recognize that there are cases where an exception is justified." Still, it's difficult to figure out which exceptions are justified. Blake Eskin's "Fit to Print" Tumblr details dozens and dozens of Timesian bowdlerizations, and "shit" does appear to be off-limits almost all the time. Here's one example from a Magazine profile of Wendy Davis, who is running for governor of Texas:

At another, Rodney Ellis, a Democratic colleague, whispered, "The president just tweeted about you," and Davis responded with an expletive of surprise. ("Can Wendy Davis Have It All?", 2/16/14)

The "expletive of surprise" was "Holy shit!"—as confirmed on Twitter by Jessica Lustig, staff editor at the Times for the op/ed and Sunday Review sections. Lustig, incidentally, gave "two fists in the air" for the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower's op/ed "The Case for Profanity" (3/31/14), a thorough takedown of the hypocrisy underlying the anti-profanity policies of the Times and other American media outlets. So perhaps a new generation of editors will finally weary of this stupid shit.

A version of this post appeared on Language Log

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.