After President Obama used the n-word in an interview on Monday to make a point about enduring racism, decisions about whether to air and write the slur varied among the media.
Fox News and MSNBC debated Obama’s use of the word but bleeped it in news reports.
CNN, the owner of this website, initially did the same thing, but executives soon decided it should be aired without any editing. (Producers were advised to air it judiciously, only when the full context is included.) Similarly, CNN.com spelled out the word in its story about the interview but not in the headline.
The New York Times printed the word, while Politico covered it with dashes and some media outlets revisited their initial coverage decisions as the day wore on.
“We don’t have a policy on the n-word specifically, so this morning we dashed it out as a precaution,” Politico’s digital editorial director Blake Hounshell told CNNMoney in an email.
In an interview with the comedian Marc Maron on the “WTF” podcast, Obama spoke candidly when he addressed the long history of racism in the United States.
“Racism, we are not cured of,” Obama said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
The Associated Press spelled out the word in its coverage of the interview, but not in its first report. AP spokesperson Paul Colford told CNNMoney that the wire service originally referred only to “the N-word” and a “racial epithet.”
“We wanted to avoid any unsuspecting rip and read of our story resulting in ‘n—–‘ getting on the air,” Colford said in an email.
He said the AP subsequently used Obama’s complete quote, including the N-word, while providing editors with a note up top indicating the epithet’s placement in the story’s third paragraph.
“Our reasoning was: It’s the president talking, and using that specific word to make a point,” Colford said.
Certain AP subscribers took a different approach. NBC News and CBS News, for example, published the AP’s write-up on their websites, but each outlet scrubbed the middle four letters of the word. An article about the interview on ABCNews.com used dashes to censor the word.
The New York Times picked up the AP’s story on the interview, too; but unlike NBC and CBS, the newspaper published the N-word in full. Later, the Times published its own version of the story, and again included the fully spelled-out word. Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy said there was “discussion” over how to treat Obama’s comments.
“We think the context makes it newsworthy and important to quote him directly,” Murphy told CNNMoney.
CBS, like CNN, did not bleep out the word when it played audio of Obama’s remarks on-air Monday morning. Network and cable companies typically shield their viewers from incendiary terms like the N-word. You may hear the epithet on HBO or Showtime, but rarely CBS.
The White House, for its part, sought to downplay the comment, with a spokesperson pointing out that Obama used the N-word “about a dozen times” in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”