Donald Trump being president (footnote – illegitimate president) has put America’s Main Stream News Media in a pickle. How do you report the Truth when the Truth speaks dirty words?
I could almost get nostalgic for the days when each TV Talking Head had to decide how they were going to handle “pussy-grabbing”. The thought of saying those words — yes, it’s absurd that we’re even having the conversation — it’s uncomfortable because every bit of this is so many light years beyond normal’s zip code. Trump’s presidency has relentlessly assaulted truth, our sensibilities — the language even. Maybe the language especially.
We all know that, backstage, political people talk just like everyone else — except worse. We pretend in public life that they do nothing of the kind. If they did talk dirty backstage and cut secret deals, it’d mean they were all liars. As if we didn’t know already. That’s another environment where we willingly accept the baby talk version vs the adult version. That can’t possibly end well for us.
Confession: I’ve always had a taste for darkness. I love Diane Arbus photos. Weegee. When I was 16, I worked as an orderly during the summer at one of the hospitals where my surgeon father had privileges. My best friend Danny and I (his dad was an orthopedic surgeon and Danny likewise orderlied) liked to play a game. We’d swing by the pathology lab where one of us would open a specimen jar or silver tray filled with diseased organs or other excised body parts — and the other had to guess “What Is It?”
Danny won the whole summer when he opened a large tray filled with… lots of yellow fat, a shrivel of skin to one side and — I gave up, having no idea “what is it”. Danny pointed to something floating in the muck — it was where the nipple had sloughed off from the rest of the breast. So — two 16 year old breast-obsessed boys gaped in awe, disgust and amazement at a female breast seen, kinda, from the inside.
Maybe that cold, hard slap of reality did something to me. What I saw didn’t turn me off, but it definitely informed me. You could call breasts anything you wanted after that — to me, it was the contents of that silver tray — flesh and everything beneath it.
We’re not talking here about excessive use of certain words (because I accept advertising on my pages, I moderate my language here with the understanding that my blog’s title already limits me with some advertisers — irony, she is cruel, no?) We’re talking about something more fundamental: how people react to those words. And why.
If I said “Quick — put the image of a bowel movement into your head”, you would picture a turd. Now, just as quick — what’s that thing called? Regardless of what you call it, the object doesn’t change. It’s still the same image, the same object. If I went on American television, I could — on, say, a news show on CNN or MSNBC — call that object a bowel movement. I could call it a turd or “poop” even. I can use that baby talk word. I could string it together endlessly if I wanted to — “Poop-poop-poop-poop-poop-poop-POOP!” But — up until very recently — if I called it “shit”, I’d be thrown off the air possibly even for good.
Donald Trump has challenged our news media in a million different ways. To our collective detriment, they’ve only just started rising to the challenge. We have a president whose obscenity only begins with the words he uses while conducting the Peoples’ business. It’s absurd to worry if repeating the word “bullshit” will get you suspended, fired or worse while we, as a nation, hold brown-skinned children in concentration camps.
Our problem with “curse words” is a symptom of a tragic disease. We worry about blemishes when there’s rot underneath. Our worrying about the wrong thing — that’s the disease.
It reminds me of one night when I was in high school. Mid-70’s. There were three networks — ABC, CBS & NBC. On CBS, they were running the last night of a blockbuster TV event, the climax of Helter Skelter, the dramatization of the Manson Family murders and prosecution. NBC counter-programed a movie premier (back then, it was “an event” when big feature films premiered on television — which meant premiering on network TV): the movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war masterpiece “Slaughterhouse Five”.
Being a kid, the Manson Family story was a dark blur. I didn’t know much about it — so didn’t watch the first two nights. Being a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan, I tuned in to watch “Slaughterhouse Five”. The book’s hero — Billy Pilgrim — is unstuck in time and floats freely between all the moments in his life — from birth to death (he’s murdered). Also included in these life moments — the time Billy spent while a specimen in a human zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. Billy shared an enclosure there with adult film star Montana Wildhack and together they have a baby.
Ya with me still? There are two important moments toward the end of the book. At the story’s climax, the Allies firebomb Dresden, Germany — a beautiful cathedral city with no strategic importance. At the ending, Billy watches a war movie where the firebombing happens in reverse — the fires go out as the bombs retreat back up into the bombers that dropped them.
Then Billy finds himself back on Tralfamadore — where he watches Montana Wildhack breastfeed their baby.
So — on Channel 2 (back then in Baltimore), CBS depicted the climactic scenes of the Manson Family’s evil. Being TV — American TV — in the 70’s, the murder and mayhem were handled tastefully. The point wasn’t titillation, it was truthful storytelling. It was still disturbing.
Meanwhile, on channel 4 (NBC back then in Baltimore), where hope for the future enters the story — the American audience never got to see Montana Wildhack breastfeed a baby because the censors at NBC cut it from the movie. Because breastfeeding a baby is obscene (cos it involves a naked breast).
I was probably 17 at the time but it made a real impression on me. I’m writing about it 40+ years later. NBC baby talked its audience that day.
It’s a very real relief to hear actual journalists use the words Donald Trump uses when they report on Trump. It makes it that much more jarring when a colleague resorts to baby talk instead of treating their audience like adults.
I’d like to make a deal with our Main Stream News Media. You treat us like the adults we are and we’ll treat you like journalists. Deal?