There was a time in U.S. history when candidates for president did not need to be reminded to avoid using obscene and inappropriate language in front of millions of people.
That time is not now.
Faced with profligate profanities on the campaign trail — and at least one candidate who publicly threatened to work blue on its airwaves (ahem, Beto O’Rourke) — ABC News issued a warning this week to the 10 Democrats appearing on the debate stage in Houston on Thursday: Keep it clean, folks.
“We wanted to take this opportunity to remind you that, as the debate will air on the ABC broadcast network, we are governed by Federal Communications Commission indecency rules,” Rick Klein, the network’s political director, wrote in a memo forwarded to campaigns by the Democratic Party.
“Candidates should therefore avoid cursing or expletives in accordance with federal law,” Klein added, presumably sighing deeply.
There will be no delay on Thursday’s broadcast, leaving ABC censors helpless to bleep any blurted profanities. And the fact that the debate will be carried on regular broadcast airwaves — rather than the more libertine environment of cable — means the network could face penalties from federal regulators if obscenities are transmitted into Americans’ living rooms.
Concerns about uncouth language may seem quaint in an era when President Trump regularly indulges in all kinds of locker-room talk, peppering his social media and rally speeches with oaths once considered unspeakable (publicly, anyway) for a commander in chief.
But Democratic candidates, several of whom have denounced Trump’s degradation of political discourse, are increasingly dipping into dirty words themselves.
O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, has dropped the F-word in numerous recent interviews while describing his anger about the spread of gun violence. A T-shirt available for sale on O’Rourke’s campaign website features the word in question spelled out six times. (In a nod to modesty, one letter is replaced by an asterisk.)
Obscenities, O’Rourke argued, are an appropriate response to the nation’s recent spate of gun massacres, including a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in the district he represented. Asked in New Hampshire over the weekend if he planned to swear on the debate stage, the candidate replied: “Maybe.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has casually used an obscene word for feces on his Twitter account, and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, has indulged in a similar obscenity in live interviews. Coarse words like “pissed” or “hell” have also shown up in candidates’ statements.
Still, the ABC memo, first reported by CNN, was widely seen as an implicit warning toward O’Rourke. (The sponsors of this year’s two previous Democratic debates, NBC News and CNN, did not feel the need to circulate a similar warning against expletives.) ABC declined to comment, and the O’Rourke campaign did not respond to questions.
For television news executives, censoring curse words is typically a no-brainer. But sometimes the swear itself is newsworthy, a predicament that cropped up last year after Trump used a vulgar term to describe African nations and Haiti during a White House meeting with lawmakers.
The word appeared on cable news chyrons and in some news outlets’ smartphone alerts. Broadcast networks, governed by stricter rules, were more circumspect: Of the major network newscasts, only Lester Holt of NBC News uttered the offending word. On “ABC World News Tonight,” anchor David Muir, who is serving as one of Thursday’s debate moderators, said Trump used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”
Technically, the FCC prohibition on “grossly offensive” language on television expires at 10 p.m., so Democrats could hold off on their curses until then. There will still be an entire hour of debating left to go.