Not taking shit from the president?

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In Politico's Playbook, Mike Allen notes that the slogan "Don't Do Stupid Shit" has worked its way into numerous journalistic descriptions of the "Obama Doctrine." "Playbook rarely prints a four-letter word — our nephews are loyal readers," Allen writes. "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."

The Times has referred to the Obama slogan four times already (including twice in today's paper), but has 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. (See: "Presidential expletive watch," 7/17/06; "Taking shit from the president," 7/19/06.)

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." (See: "The NYT transgresses," 8/23/07.)

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 blog 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 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.


  1. GeorgeW said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

    FWIW, I got 9,960 hits on a "shit" word search of the NYTImes since the beginning of time (1851). When the search was restricted to "articles" there were 5,340 hits.

    However, some seem to be optical scanning errors. As an example, one headline is reported as "Court Shit on Sanity Debated." As this looks a little frivolous, I checked the actual print article and it is a more Timesy "Court Shift on Sanity Debated."

    Another headline reports "MRS. CROKER LOSES FLORIDA LAND SHIT." The print article has "Land Suit."

    I wonder what software they are using for their optical scanning. Or, maybe it is operator 'error.'

  2. the other Mark P said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

    The taboo on swearing is much stronger when there is a conscious decision to swear in a public situation. I bang my finger and let out a "fuck" to no-one in particular then my colleague will barely notice, but if I say "that's fucking stupid" in a meeting, then the hackles will be raised.

    The cases you state for Nixon, Bush, Spitzer are all examples of people being basically overheard in private conversation. That's quite a different situation to a president coming out and deliberately using taboo language directly at the press.

  3. Brett said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

    I think "Court Shit on Sanity Debated" is would be a great story.

  4. Matt said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

    Bit garden path-y, though.

  5. Nathan said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 8:33 am

    Not in American headline English, where "court" can only take singular verbs, and the only tense is present.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    But, this can be interpreted as 'court shit (i.e. characterization of its decision) on (the question of) sanity (is) debated.'

  7. pj said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    I'm sure I can't be alone in being involuntarily, distractingly revolted by the conjuction of avoided-but-suggested 'shit' with the concepts of 'saltiness' and 'spiciness'?
    If they really wanted to spare my fragile finer feelings, they'd print 'shit', but leave terms prompting reflection on the taste of it well alone.

  8. JC Dill said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 11:52 am

    Today on SFGate, quoting Rolling Stone, quoting an Obama official:

    "At the time, one Obama administration official told Hastings: "We don't give a shit why he left. He's an American soldier. We want to bring him home." "

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    "Salty" as a way of describing vulgar/taboo language itself sounds rather archaic (prim-maiden-aunt-schoolmarmish, to run together a bunch of themselves-now-archaic stereotypes), although it doesn't evoke for me the same unfortunate culinary overtones that it does for pj. I wonder if that sense of "salty" derives from salty-as-nautical, since in the old days sailors ("salty dogs," "old salts," etc.) were stereotyped as prone to the use of vulgar/coarse language.

  10. Brett said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I have no idea whether that's its origin, but I also have always associated "salty" language with sailors' profanity.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

    The association of 'salty' language and sailors would have given rise to the expression "cusses like a sailor."

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    And in the olden days when women were barred from many maritime callings they were said, if notably foul-mouthed, to "swear like a fishwife," since that on-shore occupation was perhaps the next best thing actually to being out on the salt sea.

  13. Scott said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    A perfectly ironic slogan for this administration, I think

  14. Alon Lischinsky said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 5:10 am

    @J. W. Brewer:

    I wonder if that sense of "salty" derives from salty-as-nautical

    Unlikely. The OED lists the ‘profane’ meaning as the earlier one. Although the entry has not yet been updated, quick-and-dirty corpus evidence suggest that's an accurate view; “salty words” peaks much earlier than “salty dogs” in Google Ngrams.

    A more likely source is the obsolete salt, salty (< Fr saut ‘leap’) meaning ‘in heat’, although the chronology is not perfect.

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