Open microphones have often left politicians and other powerful people red-faced and apologetic.
But The Washington Post’s decision Friday to publish a video of Donald Trump explaining how he kissed and groped women pushed some newsrooms to dance around the graphic language while others took it public unedited.
Because Trump’s attitude toward women has been a central issue raised by Hillary Clinton, there is a clear justification for journalists to report fully what he said, without editing his crude words.
Over-the-air TV reports have to be more sensitive than cable news, online or print reporting because of the Federal Communications Commission regulation of profanity. The FCC does not regulate cable content, and nobody regulates online and printed news.
Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment. For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.
Profane content includes “grossly offensive” language that is considered a public nuisance.
The key element in the obscenity definition as it applies to Trump’s video is the provision stating offensive language must not have any “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” I think one could easily argue that a direct quote from one of the leading candidates for president has “political value.”
The Washington Post, which broke the story and included the graphic video, edited the text:
“I did try and f— her. She was married,” Trump says.
Trump continues: “And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, ‘I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.’ ”
“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married,” Trump says. “Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”
At that point in the audio, Trump and Bush appear to notice Arianne Zucker, the actress who is waiting to escort them into the soap-opera set.
“Your girl’s hot as s—, in the purple,” says Bush, who’s now a co-host of NBC’s “Today” show.
The Washington Post’s justification for posting the video rested on two questions, according to an interview with Executive Editor Marty Baron by Post reporter Paul Farhi: Was it relevant? And was it authentic?
As for the recording’s language, he said, “We make our best judgments in weighing taste against clarity about what was said. I think we accomplished that in our approach.”
The Guardian decided to publish the coarse language:
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump bragged about attempting to “fuck” married women and kissing women without waiting for their consent, “like a magnet”, in a 2005 conversation with a television host that was caught on a live microphone.
The New York Times also opted not to censor Trump’s language:
During the exchange, with the television personality Billy Bush of the program “Access Hollywood,” Mr. Trump recalls how he once pursued a married woman and “moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” expressing regret that they did not have sex. But he brags of a special status with women: Because he was “a star,” he said, he could “grab them by the pussy” whenever he wanted.
Mr. Trump, who was 59 at the time, went on to disparage the woman, whom he did not name, saying, “I did try and fuck her. She was married,” and, “She’s now got the big phony tits and everything.”
“You can do anything,” Mr. Trump says.
Carolyn Ryan, senior editor for politics for The New York Times, explained the decision to publish the obscenities on Twitter Friday evening:
Ultimately we decided the vulgar words themselves were newsworthy, and omitting or describing them would have been less than forthright. https://t.co/GyePYdMchz
— carolynryan (@carolynryan) October 8, 2016
CNN repeatedly aired the tape that the Post uncovered without bleeps or edits. Summarizing the video, commentators used phrases like “The P word” and “The F word,” but Wolf Blitzer repeatedly warned viewers of the graphic language before rolling the video. Online, CNN reported:
During the lewd conversation captured by a microphone Trump was wearing on his lapel, Trump recounts how he tried to “fuck” an unidentified married woman before bragging that he is “automatically attracted to beautiful (women)” and just starts “kissing them.” The conversation came just months after Trump married his third and current wife, Melania.
He also said: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Fox News was more reserved:
“I moved on her and I failed,” Trump says. “I’ll admit it. I did try and f— her. She was married…And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, ‘I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.’”
Variety, which landed an apology from Billy Bush, also edited the most objectionable words:
In their chat, Trump talks about an attempt to seduce a woman, but not succeeding at it.
“I did try and f— her. She was married,” Trump said. At the time of the “Access Hollywood” taping, By then, Trump was married to current wife Melania, but it is unclear when the incident that he was describing took place.
After Trump and Bush notice Arianne Zucker, an actress on “Days of Our Lives,” Bush makes a comment about her being “hot as s—.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter reported Friday night that “Access Hollywood” had been working on a story that included the video with Trump and Billy Bush, and that NBC News knew about it. But both were blindsided by The Washington Post, which had been supplied the video by a confidential source.
Trump’s status as a candidate for the nation’s highest office has much to do with the decision to broadcast the coarse language, Stelter said.
“Normally these are words we would not use on the air,” he said. But, when it’s a candidate for the President of the United States, journalists are obligated to.
There are reportedly more tapes, but Stelter didn’t say how he knows that or who might have them.
NBC News didn’t mention any of what Stelter reported, and bleeped all of the vulgar words.
Many prominent public figures, including Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Joe Biden and President Obama have been caught on mic saying things they wished had not gone public. But none of those moments, captured in a Time top-10 list, includes language anywhere near as graphic as Trump. And none came close to suggesting sexually assaulting a woman.
Still to come: How will NBC react to Billy Bush’s involvement in this incident? He anchors the third hour of “Today” for the network.