One of the many amusements, many of them completely unintended, that has accompanied reading the New York Times over the decades has been observing the way the Gray Lady squirms and blushes when confronted with profanity. One pungent eight-letter synonym for nonsense was commonly replaced with the phrase “barnyard epithet.” Two years ago the paper quoted a pol as using the phrase “we were like pigs in slop” but cautioned that the actual noun used was not “slop,” meaning the quotation published was partly fabricated. And it was just a few days ago that the Times reported on a hot-mic exchange between Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins and her Democratic colleague, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. The two were unaware their conversation was being recorded, yet the Times reported what they said anyway. Collins understandably seemed caught off guard that Blake Farenthold, a Republican congressman from Corpus Christi, had broached the possibility (had she been a “guy from South Texas”) of having an “Aaron Burr–style duel” with her. Reed replied with . . . well, we don’t know what Reed said about Farenthold except that it was vulgar. The Times wouldn’t tell us.
And bless the paper’s editors for withholding that information. As the kids say, the Times gotta be Timesin’! (I’m not sure the kids actually say that, but if they did it would be delightful.) Two days later, though, the paper’s policy on reporting vulgarities seemed to have undergone a distinct change when it reported on White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci’s “colorful language” in an exchange with a New Yorker writer. The Times fully, even a bit gleefully, reported Scaramucci’s profane remarks. There is little precedent for a swear word used by Scaramucci ever to appear in the New York Times. Nor is there much, if any, precedent for directly quoting the kind of language Scaramucci used when he described an anatomically improbable act.
Are vulgarities used by White House flunkies in the process of criticizing other White House flunkies more newsworthy than vulgarities used by sitting senators in criticizing sitting congressmen? I don’t see how they are. True, Senator Reed did not know his comments would be reported, but that didn’t stop the Times from quoting other things he said in the conversation. And it’s hard to imagine that Scaramucci, who is new both to Washington and to the communications profession, believed his comments would be reported. Is it uncommon for White House aides and other political figures to use swear words in chats with reporters? No, not at all. The chief reason the exchange wound up making news is that Scaramucci, seemingly unfamiliar with the way things are done in his new profession, neglected to utter the five magic words — “This is off the record” — that protect vulgar and mean-spirited political figures from looking vulgar and mean-spirited to the world.
Let’s not pretend there isn’t another reason the Times cast off its usual standards in quoting Scaramucci without using dashes or euphemisms or the catchall term “vulgarity.” Quoting Scaramucci accurately is a way to make the Trump administration look bad, and making the Trump administration look bad is the Times’ primary purpose these days. This has been its primary purpose since long before its executive editor, Dean Baquet, admitted he thought his columnist Jim Rutenberg “nailed it” when Rutenberg, in a column Baquet placed on the front page last August, begged America’s Fourth Estate to abandon (its usual pretense of) objectivity and be boldly oppositional to Trump.
Nor should we pretend not to understand why American politics has turned into an all-degrading experience, a roadhouse mud-wrestling match, a filth-a-thon. If the circus has set up shop in the White House and exotic political animals are dropping their dung all over the National Mall, blame the Barnum who brought all this to town. Trump could at any point since (or even before) the election have started acting like a measured professional and surrounded himself with other measured professionals. He won’t do this because there is nothing measured or professional about him. He couldn’t fake it if he tried, not for longer than it takes to get through a single speech, and most of the time he isn’t even trying.
If Trump thinks acting like a lout is what got him to the presidency in the first place, I’m not sure he’s wrong. But 2017 isn’t an election year. He could act presidential for three and a half years and hold off insulting reporters, lawmakers, and members of his own cabinet until his next campaign, assuming there is one.
Still, that roadhouse mud-wrestling match is not compulsory. We are all in a sense required to understand it is happening, maybe even forced to observe it. But we’re not forced to participate in it. The New York Times stands proudly at the pinnacle of American journalism, and its editors set the standard for all the other news editors. It is now okay for news organizations to print the nastiest swear words, at least when quoting Republicans. Assume that 20 years from now, all news media feel free to quote every swear word in the language. Will Baquet be proud to say, “Yeah, I’m the one who did that”? Will Baquet find it easy to explain why he did it — “Because we had this totally unprecedented situation where this one guy who worked in the White House was angry with this other guy who worked in the White House”? In an astonishingly short period of time, the United States has become a place where otherwise serious, or at least serious-ish, people who are caught in unseemly behavior are wailing, “But he did it first!” Maybe you think anything goes if you’re Donald Trump or one of his toadies. There is no reason the rest of should stoop to their level.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.