This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian’s news coverage. Your questions — which may be edited for space — are answered here each Saturday by The Californian’s Robert Price.
Price: Every year the Oxford Dictionary selects a Word of the Year — a term, sometimes newly coined, sometimes reintroduced with a new meaning — that has been thrust into the popular consciousness by events or trends.
Last year's Word of the Year was "youthquake," which I think we can all agree must have marked a historic low for Oxford.
The leading candidate for 2018 achieves an even lower low. It's not new; it's a resurrected term from the alleys and junior-high playgrounds of America: Yes, "shithole." At least that's what I would select at this point — based on its reflection of this moment in time, not its contribution to the American vernacular.
We're hearing the word so much now because the president casually dropped it a couple of weeks ago in a White House meeting of legislators. Supposedly, anyway. He was referencing the countries he would prefer not to accept immigrants from — "shithole" countries like Haiti, for example. (And, in fact, Trump on Thursday banned people from Haiti, Samoa and Belize from receiving temporary guest-worker visas.)
The Washington Post got wind of Trump's language and within minutes it was the outrage de jour. Unlike other Trumpisms, however, this one made headlines all across the country — not because the president of the United States used vulgar language (nothing new there, for this president or most any other) but because it insulted other sovereign nations and, in the minds of some, suggested more than a hint of racism. Trump would, after all, happily accept Norwegian immigrants.
The controversy put media companies like this one in a bit of a bind: "Shithole" is not a word we would ever allow in print, absent the most unusual circumstances. Do we ban the word or print it? Do we insert dashes or asterisks and pretend we're buffering the shock to readers' sensibilities? Do we concoct some sort of euphemism?
Editors discussed it and decided we would publish the word sparingly and judiciously, and only in the text of an article, never a headline.
(The only reason the word appears as frequently as it does in today's column is because it is the central theme of today's column. Dancing around it here, now, strikes me as a bit silly.)
But was this the right call? Last week I asked readers to weigh in. I got a ton of responses. Here, abbreviated, are a few.
Reader: The question was posed in your Jan. 13 headline: "Just because Trump says it, should we print it?" Answer: Only to a limited degree.
I see no fault in printing a newsworthy story as it occurs regardless of the language used. What I object to is beating it to a bloody pulp again and again and again. What does the congressman think? What's the senator's reaction? What about the man on the street? The mayor? The subject nations? And on and on interminably. Who cares?
Notwithstanding the economic imperative of keeping the presses rolling and the airwaves filled, how about reporting the story once in-depth, a follow-up or two if necessary, and moving on?
As it is, the need for a yet another political slam on Trump has undermined trust, jeopardized needed legislation, discouraged further discussion and demonstrated once again the propensity of modern politicians to put party over country and politics over people.
For the record, I'm an independent voter and I cast a write-in vote for president last year.
— Eric G. Ziegler
Price: Eric, you nailed one of the primary reasons this dust-up has not gone away: It's affecting the business of running this country. From Thursday's New York Times:
"By midday Thursday, the chances of a (government) shutdown appeared to be rising — a shutdown that would hit a year to the day after Mr. Trump took office. Efforts to negotiate a broader budget deal that would protect young undocumented immigrants, raise spending for military and domestic programs and fund children’s health care had been making progress until Mr. Trump referred to African nations as 'shithole countries' last week. The ensuing uproar upended budget and immigration talks and emboldened Democrats."
Reader: Has it been confirmed that President Trump actually said it? And even if he did, they are shithole countries.
If this were Barack Obama would you report it with as much rigor? No, you wouldn’t keep taking swipes.
— Mike Thompson
Price: If Barack Obama, born of African ancestry, had used those words to describe African nations, yes, the media would have reported it with gusto. Perhaps with even more gusto than we're seeing today. But I suppose that's not what you meant.
If Obama had used a similar vulgarity in a similar setting and a similar manner, yes, it still would have been big news. Why? Because it would have been so out of character for him to use vulgar language in public and even more out of character for him to disparage another country in such a way. We've heard Trump do both previously.
But did Obama ever cuss? Sure. He directed at least one profanity-laced tirade at the press in an off-the-record conversation, complaining that they were making too much of minor scandals (sound familiar?) and they had failed to grasp the limits of U.S. foreign policy.
Obama didn't deny that he used bad language. “I curse more than I should,” he told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in a 2016 interview published in Vanity Fair. “And I find myself cursing more in this office than I had in my previous life.”
Reader: Socrates once said, “Speak, so that I may see you.” Offensive or not, the words, which emanate from the mouths of our elected leaders and others, should be reported verbatim when feasible and disseminated in the press. Autocrats are thus exposed. Any glossing over of pertinent facts dilutes the message and constitutes censorship. Censorship, rigorously enforced in my birthplace, Cuba, begins with self-censorship in the newsroom. Intrepid journalists worldwide risk imprisonment and death bringing the unadulterated truth — however repugnant — to readers. The truth should not be sacrificed in the commendable pursuit of civil discourse.
— Daisy B. Peñaloza
Reader: I support The Californian's effort to print the exact quotations of Donald Trump without censorship or fear of offending sensitive readers. I'm guessing that most of the offended readers are also die-hard Trump supporters, threatening to cancel subscriptions because our newspaper accurately reported that the president of the United States suggested that nonwhite people come from pits of excrement. Would they be less offended by an expletive-free story with the factual headline, "President is a racist"?
Perhaps that kind of reporting will finally succeed in sending the people in MAGA hats into the streets, the internet, the writing desks and the voting booths in an effort to kill Trump's message of hate instead of the messenger.
— Brian Russom
Reader: I'm assuming that everybody, by now, has seen it in the newspaper, or on TV, or online. No need to repeat it. But it is better to repeat than to use a substitute that is equally repugnant, and reflects very poor judgment. In fact, it makes the reporter a laughingstock.
— Larry Dunn
Reader: Yes, please print what is "on the record," whatever that may truthfully and factually be.
— Dick Albright
Reader: TBC should cover the president and his actions, verbal and tweet, and should state what, when, etc. — and allow the letters to follow.
In particular, regarding the disdain he holds for African and Caribbean countries: When Rep. Kevin McCarthy is "in the room where it happened" (from the musical "Hamilton," awesome!) the paper should contact his office for comment. Since he doesn't respond to constituency, as I know, the hometown newspaper should ask.
— Name withheld
Price: I personally texted McCarthy last week and asked about it. Haven't heard back.
Reader: If the president says it, then it is news. If the president uses crude, denigrating language about the people who come to the United States in pursuit of the American dream, then every American needs to know and be a part of the discussion. Maybe that term can be waved off as barroom talk, but not when the president says it. Barflies do not make policy or represent the values of the United States — presidents do. If President Trump thinks so little of those coming to United States, remembering that we are all descendants of immigrants, and is willing to say so in a policy meeting, we must ask ourselves are these the values we hold. Is the shining city of the hill that Reagan spoke of still America, or is it the chamber pot that Trump speaks of?
— Alex Wiyninger
Reader: Yes, use the term. In the body of the story, not the headline. Your headline can simply refer to a vulgarity.
— Steven Montgomery
Reader: The current POTUS is apparently unaware of the import and weight carried by his words, perhaps because he has been permitted to lie, repeatedly and brazenly, with impunity. That is unfortunate (and evidently contagious), but his words must be reported verbatim.
He is POTUS, and no matter how crass (that adjective is truly the only one needed to describe him), what he says and writes is a matter of public record.
While his words must be printed in the newspapers, letters to the editors and commentaries need not descend to the same level of crude vulgarity. Criticism of obscenity need not be obscene.
— Pam Wildermuth
Reader: Robert, I've always been "Old Testament" in my approach to the news. Unsparing. Tell it all. Tell it straight. Tell it unvarnished.
— Don Clark