Yesterday, the President reportedly used the word “shithole” to describe certain countries whose immigrants were seemingly less favored than others. This predictably caused outrage in many quarters – and left the electronic media, especially broadcast TV in a quandary. Do they broadcast the purportedly used term, or do they use some euphemism so that “shit,” one of those words that the FCC has from time to time found inappropriate to be used on the air, does not reach tender ears? The New York Times ran a story describing how different media outlets handled the story here. What is a broadcaster to do?
The FCC has said repeatedly that there is no blanket rule exempting news programming from its indecency rules – so theoretically, a broadcaster could face an indecency action at the FCC for the use of a proscribed word on the air, even in a newscast. However, the FCC has recognized that decisions made about the language used in newscasts are subject to a different level of First Amendment protection than language that might be included in an entertainment program. So, for instance, when NPR aired excerpts from a tape of mobster John Gotti that had been introduced during his criminal trial, and that tape contained multiple words usually not allowed on broadcast stations, the FCC and the courts found that, in the circumstances of news coverage, the use of these words was not actionable. In another case, a CBS Morning News interview with the winner of the Survivor television program, there was a similar decision from the FCC. On the morning news program, the winning contestant labeled a competitor a “bullshitter.” The FCC took no action, deferring to the licensee’s decision given that it was made in the context of a news program. So, while there is no blanket exception for indecency in news programs (witness the huge fine issued to a TV station that had not properly edited a news segment on a former adult industry movie star turned first responder, about which we wrote here), certainly the FCC has provided stations more discretion to air otherwise prohibited words in their news if necessary to provide context to their news coverage. But with FCC Chairman Pai admonishing broadcasters to “keep it clean,” and with the FCC’s indecency rules still on the books, and any complaint likely to cost time and money to defend, broadcasters may want to be cautious in their approach to these situations, even in the context of news programs.
Update: 1/12/2018; Tonight, on All Things Considered, there was a very good discussion (available here) of NPR’s use of the term supposedly used by the President, and how the specific words were used only where they were thought to be newsworthy – and the term was used sparingly. That story struck me as containing good advice for those stations that decide to use any such term on the air in a news report – the profane term should be used sparingly and only when it is newsworthy. A repeated use of the profane word, even in news reporting, could be used to question the news judgment of the station. So use judgement and discretion – there is no blank check even in news reports.