Donald Trump has made this campaign season the most vulgar in the history of American politics, but he’s actually been a lot more vulgar on the campaign trail than many viewers realize. All the major news networks routinely have censored his use of expletives, bleeping them and covering his mouth with pixels to prevent viewers from hearing or seeing what the GOP front-runner is saying.
Whether because of their own broadcast standards, fear of FCC fines or concern about viewer sensibilities, the news networks not only have sanitized Trump’s constitutionally protected political speech but deprived voters of useful information about the foul-mouthed billionaire who would be president.
They have bleeped words like “shit” and “pussy” and covered his mouth with pixels when he mouthed the word “fuck.” Leading newspapers have sanitized his profanities, too, opting for the time-honored asterisk to replace some of the offending letters. But unlike over-the-air news broadcasters, newspapers are not compelled to do so by a governmental agency.
And that’s the difference: the Federal Communications Commission, backed by the Supreme Court, says that ABC News, CBS News and NBC News cannot air these profane words, even when they’re expressed in a political speech by a leading presidential contender.
Indeed, under the FCC’s profanity rules, which were first upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1978 case involving the broadcast of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words,” network news broadcasters couldn’t even say what those seven words were. And under those same rules, if Trump is elected President of the United States and calls someone a motherf*cker during his inaugural address, the broadcast news networks wouldn’t be allowed to air that either.
That indeed is the law, FCC spokesman Neil Grace told Deadline. “The indecency/profanity rules apply to the broadcast networks and stations who air the content, not who says the content,” he said.
Grace then pointed to FCC guidelines that state, “Profane language includes those words that are so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance.”
On its website, the FCC itself is so cautious about offending anyone that it can’t even name the word it finds the most offensive. “In its Golden Globe Awards Order,” the site reads, “the FCC warned broadcasters that, depending on the context, it would consider the F-Word and those words, or variants thereof that are as highly offensive as the F-Word, to be profane language that cannot be broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.”
That order came down after Bono, upon U2 winning the Best Original Song award at the 2003 Golden Globes, blurted out on live television, “This is really, really fucking brilliant.” Ironically, in a 2004 article about the FCC’s profanity rules, CBS News posted a story on its website – which is not subject to FCC oversight – quoting Bono as saying that “This is really, really f****** brilliant.”
That kind of genteel, overly cautious news coverage might have been appropriate back in 1978 when the Supreme Court first ruled on the matter, but since then, the nation has sat, transfixed by their TV sets, as the House of Representatives held impeachment hearings to determine what President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky did or didn’t do with his penis.
And now we have Donald Trump, who last week bragged about the size of his own dick during a nationally televised debate. “I guarantee you there’s no problem,” he said, referring to the size of his penis. “I guarantee it.” But that was OK to broadcast because it was a veiled reference – he didn’t actually use the D-word.
But he’s used lots of other profanities, and each time the broadcast and cable news channels bleeped them out. During a speech last month in New Hampshire, Trump repeated a word yelled out from the audience about Ted Cruz, his Republican rival. “She said he’s a pussy,” he told the crowd, pretending to scold the woman for her crude choice of words.
But when a clip from that speech was shown the next morning on CNN, the word “pussy” was bleeped. “This is a word we can’t say on morning television,” explained CNN morning anchor Alisyn Camerota. “We just beeped it. It may be people have gleaned what it is.”
MSNBC bleeped it too, and when morning anchor Tamron Hall interviewed Trump the next day, she couldn’t even bring herself to say the word either. “First time in my 30 years on television,” she told Trump. “You’re talking about a P-word and it’s not ‘policy.’”
“We were having a lot of fun last night,” Trump replied.
In another speech last month, Trump said, “We’re gonna knock the shit out of ISIS,” and then he criticized China for “ripping the shit out of the sea.” But in its coverage of the speech, CBS News bleeped the word “shit” both times and pixeled his mouth so that viewers couldn’t see him mouth the word “fuck” when he said, “You can tell them to go fuck themselves.”
“Now, in all my years of reporting,” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly commented, “that is the first time I have ever seen a presidential candidate make use of the f-word while campaigning.”
Trump, however, told O’Reilly that he never actually said the word – that he only mouthed it. “I didn’t use the word,” he insisted. “I never said the word, Bill. I don’t know who told you I — I would never use the word. I didn’t say the word. I said, ‘You can tell them to go … themselves.” I never used the word.”
O’Reilly countered, “But the lips kind of moved in the…”
“Well, they might have,” Trump interrupted. “No I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t do that. Even I, hey Bill, even I wouldn’t do that. No. I never said the word.”
When O’Reilly showed the clip, Fox News bleeped it and covered his mouth with a screen that said “GO F***,” giving viewers the idea about Trump was saying.
It wasn’t the first time that Trump has used the F-word in a political context, and it wasn’t the first time that the news networks sanitized his vulgarity. In 2011, when he was toying with a run for the presidency, he dropped the F-bomb five times in a speech hosted by the Clark County Republican Party and a GOP women’s group in Las Vegas.
“I’d drop a 25% tax on China,” he said. “And you know, I said to someone, it’s really the messenger. The messenger is important. I could have one man say, ‘We’re gonna tax you 25%,’” he said in a mealy-mouthed voice, “And I could say to another (forcefully), ‘Listen, you motherfucker, we’re gonna tax you 25%.’ Now, you’ve said the same exact thing, but it’s a different messenger.”
In its coverage of the event, NBC News even felt it couldn’t repeat what he said on its website, posting a story that deleted all the expletives, replacing them with “f***ing” and “motherf******.”
Only C-SPAN, in its Road to the White House coverage, aired the speech with the expletives included, and the FCC did nothing about it because it doesn’t regulate profane statements made on cable or satellite news programs.
And Trump was right. It is the messenger that’s important. And when the networks sanitize the messenger, they don’t convey the real message, leaving the viewers and the voters less informed.
On February 12, Trump vowed to clean up his message, telling an audience in Baton Rouge that he won’t use foul language on the campaign trail again. “I’m just not going to do it, I’m not going to do it,” he said. “Even if it’s not a bad word — if it’s a little bit off, they kill me, so I won’t do it. I’ll never do it again, actually.”
If he breaks his vow and swears again in public, the over-the-air news networks probably still will be too chickenshit to challenge the FCC by broadcasting it without deleting the expletives, even though many experts in the field would argue that the networks would be well within their First Amendment rights to do so.
Even the bureaucrats at the FCC, attempting to have it both ways, say that they “must be mindful of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 326 of the Communications Act, which prohibit the FCC from censoring program material, or interfering with broadcasters’ free speech rights.”
“My guess is that the networks are engaging in more than they’re legally required to do,” said University of Virginia law professor Frederick Schauer, who’s also the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, emeritus, at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Major broadcasters are often more cautious than they are required to legally be. But a cautious lawyer would advise a cautious client that that is still the law, and that words on the list should be bleeped out.”
But in the public interest – and in the name of honest journalism – the cable news networks, which are not bound by FCC censorship, could and should broadcast Trump’s profanities without deletions, bleeps or pixels. The only thing that stops them, as Trump would say, is that they’re a bunch of pussies.