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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist: You ‘can’t protect readers’ from the truth

Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci speaks to members of the media at the White House on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
To censor or not to censor? That was the big question facing newsrooms late last week, after Anthony Scaramucci, the White House’s short-lived communications director, who was ousted after fewer than two weeks on the job, used obscenity-laced language to describe his then White House colleagues in an interview with The New Yorker.

A few news organizations, like the Los Angeles Times, avoided Scaramucci’s vulgar tirade altogether. But others, including The New York Times, published passages filled with his off-color language. The Associated Press, whose rules prohibit the use of obscenities, profanities, and vulgarities “unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them,” referred to Scaramucci’s description of former chief of staff Reince Priebus as a “f—— paranoid schizophrenic,” using dashes instead of spelling out the word.

We asked Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, to weigh in on Scaramucci’s comments, which he deemed “newsworthy and pretty shocking.”

If you were the editor of a major daily newspaper today, how would you have handled Scaramucci’s vulgar rant?

I would have published his comments in full for the first couple of days and then described his remarks using euphemisms like “profanity-laced rant” or “expletive-laden tirade” in subsequent stories. When news breaks, the raw form is best, in part because readers are demanding more and more transparency from the media these days. In this new media world we live in, being polite or trying to protect readers from something doesn’t really make sense.

The real test is how newsworthy Scaramucci’s comments were. In this case, when you have a government official this high up in the administration making these kinds of statements, you owe it to your readers to let them know what he said. The language was so graphic—it was so shocking—that you have to print it.

When these kinds of situations arise, there is always a newsroom discussion. Are the comments relevant to the story? Do they take away from the story? Sometimes printing profanity can detract from the story you’re trying to tell; in other instances, it can be crucial to illuminate what’s going on.

How has the media’s stance on reporting on vulgarity changed over the past few decades?

Journalistic standards are different now than they were 20 years ago. When news involving obscenities and vulgarities breaks today, newspapers feel compelled to report it. I think the evolution in what is and is not acceptable can be traced back to the Starr Report of the late 1990s, which depicted with clinical yet graphic detail of President Bill Clinton’s sexual encounters with intern Monica Lewinsky. At that time, a lot of us in the media were struggling with what to print, and some of us were even being criticized for publishing particularly scandalous details of the report. You don’t hear that kind of criticism now. Instead, the public is mesmerized by the fact that much of the vulgar language printed in newspapers and telecast on cable news is coming directly from President Trump and his top advisors. When profanity and vulgarity become so much a part of how people talk about politics, journalists have to report on it and hope that their readers understand that.

Before coming to Northeastern, you worked for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and The Boston Globe. Other than the Clinton scandal, can you recall another case where you struggled with how to report on a salacious story?

It was 2005 and I was working as an executive editor of Bloomberg News. A Danish newspaper had just published editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad—visually depicting Muhammad is considered blasphemous in most Islamic traditions—and we were debating whether or not to print the cartoons alongside a story about the controversy.

In the end, we decided that printing the cartoons could offend Muslims while imperiling our reporters working in Muslim countries around the world. So we wrote the story and embedded a link to the cartoons in the piece, making it easy for our readers to access them with a single click. It felt like a good compromise to me, one that simultaneously reflected the beliefs and feelings of our readers while enabling them to see the cartoons.