Impeachment trial goes blue, forcing network language calls

In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., prepares to speak during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., prepares to speak during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Senate Television via AP) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NEW YORK – During a gripping 13 minutes at the start of Donald Trump's second impeachment trial Tuesday, television's biggest networks aired footage of the U.S. Capitol siege with unusually explicit language.

The tape, compiled from several sources by the House impeachment managers, offered a chronological view of the former president's statements on Jan. 6 and the actions by a mob of his supporters as they broke into the Capitol.

It included several examples of rough language, including a chant, “f—- the blue,” apparently directed at police officers, and use of the word “motherf——-” by a rioter. The footage was aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC as part of live coverage of the trial's first day.

Not only was the language heard, but some of it was written on the screen by preparers of the tape, in case the audio wasn't clear.

Airing such language is a tough call, but news executives have to judge whether it is their role to censor what is being shown on the floor of the U.S. Senate, said retired NBC News executive Bill Wheatley.

“It helped communicate the passion and the terror that was going on at the time,” Wheatley said. “To have been bleeping it constantly might have been a disservice to what actually happened.”

Society in general has grown coarser over the years and television has reflected that. News organizations were tested in 2018 when then-President Trump made a reference to “s—-hole countries” in Africa and Central America. But Tuesday's language was the type frowned upon by the Federal Communications Commission, and aired in the daytime when children could be expected to be watching.

Broadcast networks are subject to FCC fines if someone complains about the language. Cable networks, since they are subscription services, have more leniency when it comes to the words they use.