The controversy over whether the media should call Trump’s racist tweets “racist,” explained
Peter Baker, in a July 14 New York Times “news analysis” article about President Trump’s decision to go on a racist Twitter tirade about four progressive first-term women of color in the US House of Representatives, demonstrates a very clear sense of who Trump is and what he’s all about.
Trump, in Baker’s recounting, “saw the dry kindling of race relations and decided to throw a match on it.” He later extended the metaphor, explaining that Trump “plays with fire like no other president in a century.” What kind of fire? Well, specifically the fire of racism.
“While others who occupied the White House at times skirted close to or even over the line, finding ways to appeal to the resentments of white Americans with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals,” Baker wrote, “none of them in modern times fanned the flames as overtly, relentlessly and even eagerly as Mr. Trump.”
What Baker didn’t do, however, is call the tweets or Trump himself racist even though he is clearly describing a political strategy that is based on the use of overtly racist rhetoric to mobilize white racism as an election-winning strategy. The closest he came, instead, was to refer to “Trump’s racially infused politics,” as if he were describing some kind of new tea or an innovative cocktail.
It’s an editorial decision that drew mockery from Seth Meyers on late-night television, performative scorn from a range of Twitter users, and a pointed rejoinder from George Conway, the prominent attorney whose wife happens to be one of Trump’s top communications aides. Marty Baron, the top editor of the Washington Post, took the time to explain why his paper had decided it was appropriate and important to call the racist tweets racist, while Fox News’s Howard Kurtz said the media was too eager to break out the r-word and Keith Woods wrote on NPR’s Code Switch blog that avoiding that kind of language is important to upholding “the fragile line that separates the profession from the rancid, institution-debasing cesspool that is today’s politics.”
The stakes in this debate are, on the one hand, probably pretty low. There’s nobody in the United States for whom anti-racist politics is a high priority who’s also seriously considering casting a vote for Trump. But the dispute nonetheless reveals important truths about the changing media landscape, the nature and purpose of journalistic objectivity, and the role of racism in contemporary society.
The Trump/racism debate
Baron, in a statement provided to Post media reporter Paul Farhi, offered a simple explanation for his decision.
“The Post traditionally has been cautious in the terminology it uses to characterize individuals’ statements, because a news organization’s job is to inform its readers as dispassionately as possible,” Baron said. “Decisions about the terminology we use are made only after a thorough discussion among senior editors. We had that discussion today about President Trump’s use of a longstanding slur against African Americans and other minorities. The ‘go back’ trope is deeply rooted in the history of racism in the United States. Therefore, we have concluded that ‘racist’ is the proper term to apply to the language he used Sunday.”
By contrast, Woods, who is NPR’s vice president for training and diversity, sees it as a question of the line between fact and editorializing. Critically, he does not disagree that Trump’s statement was racist. He just doesn’t think it’s appropriate for journalists to say so.
“Were we to use my moral standards, the line for calling people and words racist in this country would have been crossed decades ago,” he writes. “But that’s not what journalists do. We report and interview and attribute.”
As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes, though Woods appeals to the distinction between reporting facts and editorializing about opinions, the real distinction he’s drawing is the one between the domain of consensus and the domain of controversy. Because there is strong social consensus that “racism” denotes something bad, but no social consensus whatsoever on whether Donald Trump is bad, to call anything Trump says or does “racist” is necessarily controversial.
the problem with this argument is it’s not making a case for facts vs opinion, but consensus vs controversy. Some people disagree that x is racist, so you can’t say it because it’s an opinion. But if there is consensus that x is racist, it’s fine to label. https://t.co/RR8XEeeySW
— Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) July 17, 2019
Woods’s view that journalists should stick to consensus-oriented language underscores the fact that the basic truth-telling functions of journalism are always in tension with some other objectives.
The media landscape is changing
Many newspapers, in particular, enjoyed their most lucrative days as local monopolies in the late 20th century. You either subscribed to your city’s major paper or you didn’t, but there was no other paper to subscribe to. That encouraged an editorial ethos of comprehensiveness in terms of breadth of coverage, but also incentivized shying away from controversy — you didn’t want to make anyone too angry. Network television news, with three entrenched franchises, was a similarly low-competition environment where incentives pointed to a kind of shaving off of the hard edges. And this business model imperative to avoid alienating people became a normative vision of objectivity and neutrality.
In a sense, the disagreement between Woods and Baron simply reflects the fact that at the end of the day, the imperative to be objective and the imperative to seek consensus are not exactly the same thing.
Avoiding the controversial terrain of saying the president did something “racist” ends up implicating you in the world of euphemisms — “racially charged,” “racially infused,” etc. — because there actually isn’t some more plainly accurate way to characterize the situation. To Baron, it’s language that should not be thrown around lightly, but under due consideration, if it fits, you use the word.
Realistically, however, business considerations always count for something, and one reason you see more media outlets growing bolder with their language is that the media industry has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The digital realm is intensely competitive, and audience-hungry websites can’t afford to worry about trying to make everyone happy; the goal is just to make some people happy. The battle to get attention — and the knowledge that with a national or even global audience in play, even a fraction of the total universe would still be a lot of people — incentivizes a news ethos that has more in common with the UK’s fiercely competitive tabloid market than America’s staid big-city broadsheets.
NPR, however, is one of the media outlets that have been least impacted by this digital transformation since its core business model remains tied to the dynamics of terrestrial radio and to maintaining broad political support for the concept of public radio. Under the circumstances, it’s not particularly surprising that NPR would be one of the more cautious outlets while a digital-native site like Vox felt comfortable plunging ahead without a lot of hand-wringing. But underlying much of this contentiousness is disagreement in the American left about what racism is and why it might be bad.
The meaning of racism is contested
Lindsey Graham, a historically pro-immigration senator who in recent years has been desperate to stay on Trump’s good side, explained that in his view, it’s okay for Trump to impugn the equal standing of Somali American citizens because Trump would be willing to make exceptions for Somali Americans who were pro-Trump.
GRAHAM: “I really do believe that if you’re a Somali refugee who likes Trump, he’s not going to say ‘go back to Somalia.’ A racist says go back to Somalia because you’re a Somalian or you’re a Muslim or whatever, that’s just the way he is. More narcissism than anything else.”
— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) July 17, 2019
And there is surely something to this.
The Jim Crow era was based on the concept of a zero-exceptions color line. When Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, it prompted a massive racist panic led by (though not exclusive to) segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress. And this was clearly not an individualized criticism of Washington; no black dinner guest would have been deemed acceptable. The entire social structure of the time was premised on a rigid and theoretically (though of course not entirely in practice) impermeable caste system that admitted of no exceptions or bent rules.
Trump, by contrast, has a black man serving in his Cabinet, happily played host to Kanye West in the Oval Office, and generally speaking is not opposed to the idea of nonwhite people voting for him. That really is different from the kind of racism that was legally entrenched in South Carolina when Graham was a kid and at least informally operative in the North when Trump was younger too.
At the same time, even in Graham’s formulation, he is agreeing that Trump sees refugees from Somalia as only contingently welcome in the United States. And he’s skipping past the fact that Trump also invited three other members of Congress who are native-born citizens of the United States to “go back” to where they’re from. That’s the racism. Trump sees nonwhite Americans as not genuinely American (he led a years-long campaign to suggest Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya), as possessing a kind of inherent foreignness regardless of where they were born and a second-class claim on citizenship.
Progressives, especially college-educated ones, tend these days to take a broad view of “racism,” seeing it as a property of abstract discriminatory systems that imbues white people and communities with “privilege” that is denied to nonwhite Americans. Conservatives are more inclined toward a narrower, more personalized, overwhelmingly psychological conception of racism. One consequence of this is that left and right sometimes end up talking past each other on the subject. But another is that progressives want to call a lot of things — starting with Donald Trump — “racist” that conservatives don’t necessarily think are bad, which calls into question the social consensus that “racist” things are by definition bad things.
Racism is extremely controversial
Calling Trump’s racist statements racist in a more clear and forceful manner might hurt his approval ratings somewhat.
But realistically, no matter how reporters cover Trump, it’s going to remain the case that a large minority of the public thinks he’s great. Indeed, under pressure from reporters to address the situation, this is exactly what Trump reached for — he said “many people agree with me,” which is, fundamentally, true.
Under the current rules of the game, basically everyone in America has agreed that whatever it is you call “racist,” racism is very bad. Consequently, anything that’s broadly popular can’t really be racist. If progressives get their way and the term ends up being more broadly applied, then what currently plays out in the press as a disagreement over whether things are actually racist or merely “racially infused” would instead be a disagreement over whether or not racism is acceptable.
Given the progressive view that racism is a major, systemic feature of American life and an important source of privilege for the country’s white majority, it seems natural that the merits of racism would be controversial. Trump says racist things, and while most Americans seem to dislike those things, tens of millions of other Americans seem to like them, because there’s disagreement about whether saying racist things is good.