Yesterday, and certainly not for the first time, the media grappled over how to handle Donald Trump’s shit. The remarks he made about immigrants from “shithole countries” presented yet another ethical conundrum for outlets who hold themselves to standards of decency but who also have to report on the current administration. When the man whose most indelible, monument-ready quote to date involves “grabbing pussies” proclaimed it he was still only a candidate, so many chose to censor the vulgarity. It takes actually getting elected to see your worst profanities in print, or hear them echoed in the mouths of cable news pundits. That exemplar, as The Washington Post points out, was set by Richard Nixon and The New York Times in 1974, when the latter broke its self-censorship to quote Nixon railing, “I don’t give a shit what happens” on a Watergate tape. Thirty years later, The Post itself ran with Vice President Dick Cheney telling Senator Patrick Leahy to “fuck yourself.” To paraphrase Kellyanne Conway, when a president (or vice-president) does it, it is, by definition, presidential. And that’s when you finally get to smear your “shit” on the papers of record.
Still, the explosion of Trump’s “shithole” all over our news feeds yesterday was unprecedented. Not only for its uniqueness (The New York Times has, somehow, never printed the word “shithole” before yesterday, despite regularly covering the MTA). Or for its prominence (The Post put “shithole” right in the headline, breaking 141 years of vulgarity-free tradition). But also, for the widespread and exceptionally transparent debate it caused over whether to even repeat it. Many print outlets—also including The Associated Press, and Reuters—went right ahead, arguing that clarity was more important than sensitivity. Many others balked, and some even say they were asked to cover it up.
But if you wanted to see America really get all red in the face about this shit, you needed look no further than your TV, where news anchors like ABC’s David Muir demurred over Trump’s “profanity we won’t repeat,” and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow resorted to mom-isms like “S-hole” and “bleephole” to dance around it. Meanwhile, their respective colleagues Phil Mudd and Joy Ann Reid plowed gamely ahead in declaring their own, proud “shithole” heritage. By the end of the night, “shithole” had blanketed CNN’s chyrons and tumbled from the mouth of NBC’s Lester Holt, while ABC, CBS, and Fox News still hid behind their “[blank]”s and asterisks, and late-night hosts charged into the fray with similarly arbitrarily distributed bleeps. For a network censor, it was—to quote our president again—a real son of a bitch of a night.
It was especially surreal if you could recall the fervor and furor that greeted—of all things—an episode of Chicago Hope way back in 1999, a more genteel age when the White House was only just introducing our darling, innocent nation to the word “blowjob.” At the time, “shit” was still one of George Carlin’s famed “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television”—on broadcast, at least. So while anyone with an HBO subscription had already heard all seven of Carlin’s verboten words in an average episode of Def Comedy Jam, it was a real news-making event to hear such profanity spill from the upstanding lips of Mark Harmon.
Even if you didn’t watch Chicago Hope, if you were alive, you heard about this episode—which was precisely the point. The David E. Kelley-created medical drama had premiered on CBS the day before NBC’s own ER, quickly facing off in the Thursday 9 p.m. time slot, but by the end of its first season, it was clear who was the winner. ER was the hot, zeitgeist-grabbing show crammed with sexy breakout stars like George Clooney, Julianna Marguiles, Noah Wyle, and Eriq La Salle. Chicago Hope was where you went for the raw sensuality of Mandy Patinkin and Fyvush Finkel cameos. Eventually CBS relocated Chicago Hope to Mondays, where it did... fine and, in CBS tradition, ran for six seasons. But it never seemed to stop chasing ER’s edginess, and it ended up setting a few firsts in the process.
In 1995, the drama showed a teenage girl’s breasts in a scene involving reconstructive surgery; the network’s then-president said at the time that context made it clear it wasn’t done for exploitation—and if it just happened to tap into the titillating thrill surrounding the similarly taboo-breaking, ass-baring, cable-challenging NYPD Blue, then so be it. And a similar justification was used for the Oct. 14, 1999 episode “Vigilance And Care,” in which Harmon’s Dr. Jake McNeil is questioned about a surgery gone wrong, only to respond, “Shit happens.”
“The producers felt strongly that the line was important for artistic truthfulness,” CBS said in a statement to E! News at the time. “We wanted to support their creative vision, but clearly this is not something that will happen on a weekly basis.”
Not everyone believed in the auteurist purity of “Shit happens.” The network distributed the episode to its affiliates early, then let them make the call whether to mute it; ultimately only a handful took them up on it. Meanwhile, although the FCC—ever capricious in its methods—didn’t take issue with the profanity (even though it would spend years trying to recoup fines over the national trauma that was Charlotte Ross’ naked butt on NYPD Blue), but the ever-reliably offended Parents Television Council stepped in to do the thinking-about-the-children for them. “We’ve seen over the past few seasons a rapid decline in standards of network and broadcast television. It appears that all of the standards that used to be maintained and respected have now given way to almost a total lack of standards,” it said in a statement. Chicago Hope’s “shit” even drew the unlikely ire of Howard Stern, who was pissed that CBS could air a word under the aegis of “prestige drama” that would get him kicked off the radio immediately.
In the end, the Parents Television Council was right: “Shit” got everywhere. Not to be outdone by its slightly stodgier competition, ER was on its own shit three years later in an episode where Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene, dying of a brain tumor, screamed it in a moment of frustration (and, with all due respect to CBS, a more compelling case of “artistic truthfulness”). NYPD Blue started regularly sprinkling “bullshit” in its later episodes, at a prescribed rate of one per. And chances are that, even if this is your first time reading about the Chicago Hope shit-fit, you already absorbed it tangentially through the 2001 South Park episode “It Hits The Fan,” in which the entire town is enraptured by a history-making utterance of “shit” on the fictional series Cop Drama, the dam bursting on a record-setting (and plague-bringing) utterance of the word 162 times in a single episode.
In all of these cases, no one really gave a shit. As South Park’s Matt Stone explained (and the PTC moaned), “No one cares anymore… The standards are almost gone.” These days, that erosion is still very much a work in progress: You can turn on basic-cable dramas like The Walking Dead and hear “fuck,” so “shit” is relatively mild, though you’re still less likely to hear it (or any of the other Seven Words) in network primetime. Meanwhile, the FCC’s vague and arbitrary policies toward regulating them have been hampered in the wake of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling calling them out as such, largely leaving it to broadcasters themselves to self-regulate when it comes to deciding whether to let profanity rip. Yesterday’s barrage of shitholes has, predictably, already received a “handful” of FCC complaints, though it’s expected the agency won’t be able to do anything, considering this shit is technically “news.”
Not to mention the fact that it spewed out of a president who, as former CNN bureau chief Frank Sesno told The New York Times, has repeatedly demonstrated that “levels of White House discourse, and what the public will tolerate, have flipped, right along with rest of our culture.” Back in 1999, when everyone was still getting into an uproar over a fleeting expletive on a CBS medical drama, no one could have predicted that someday we’d all be having this discussion about a sitting, shitting president. But if the past two years have shown us anything, it’s that shit, indeed, happens.