Over the past three years, it has been like pulling teeth to get some members of the press to call the constant stream of falsehoods, fantasies, and figments of tortured non-facts lies. It shouldn’t be hard to call a lie a lie, but some parts of the news media act as if mental telepathy is necessary to use the word “liar” or “lie” since they argue it requires a judgment on intent which offends their journalistic sensibilities. Of course, this is complete bullshit. It has nothing to do with the integrity of objective “balance” in reporting, and everything to do with fear of losing access. These same craven assholes who can’t say or write out the word “lie” spend the entire day in speculation about candidate’s “mindset,” parsing statements for what they “may mean,” or guessing what someone “could” or “may” do in the future. They make judgments on intent all the time, but they will also jump through semantic hoops in order to not offend anyone in the audience—even the cultists of lying assholes—since they watch the ads for toothpaste and shitty term life insurance, too.
However, if the media has problems using the word lie, their inability to call something or someone “racist” is outright disgraceful. As much as Republicans are (rightfully) castigated for their complicity in Trump’s racism, the press corps is not much better.
There has been a long-standing problem of the press deciding to use euphemistic language to describe racism instead of just calling it racism. It was a problem when Trump was regurgitating “birther” garbage against President Obama. And it’s a problem now when he’s using the standard racist mantra of “go back to where you came from.” Instead of clear language and honest reporting, incidents are “racially charged” or “racially tinged.” The people who do racist things are not racists, but “firebrands” using racial language. This became a point of contention earlier this year when the NBC News standards department initially told their staff in a memo not to refer to Rep. Steve King’s comments about white supremacy as “racist,” but only as something that “many are calling racist.” After the memo leaked, NBC was shamed into publicly reversing course, even though their initial reticence in saying something or someone is “racist” is not out of the norm for the industry. And it’s such a bad norm, the Associated Press changed their style guide in March to instruct news organizations not to use euphemisms when the terms “racist” or “racism” are applicable.
With the latest incident of Trump’s overt bigotry toward four congresswomen, I thought it would be interesting to see how the media reacted this time, while trying to understand the forces and thinking behind it. Because this sort of framing affects everything from Chuck Todd fretting about definitions of “concentration camps” all the way to how Disney deciding to cast a black woman as a mermaid is discussed.
Late last year, author and history professor Lawrence B. Glickman wrote an article which detailed the “racist politics of the English language” where he researched the history of the media’s tortured use of euphemisms and weasel words, even ones which make no logical sense. An Oct. 2018 article in The New York Times claimed Trump and the GOP decided to “escalate race and fear,” leading to the question: “How exactly does one escalate race?”
According to Glickman, the attempts by the media to find neutral terms on racism began in the 1950s and ’60s. When Strom Thurmond and other Dixiecrats opposed civil rights legislation, article titles would flatly state: “Racists Hit Rights Bill as ‘Vicious’” or “Racists Rally in Nashville.” But when conservatives and southern racists decided to shift their language to be more coded and abstract in their discrimination, as segregationists lost more and more arguments on civil rights, the news media shifted with them to “color-blind” language.
And sometimes the language the press used was absolutely shameful.
The nadir of euphemism is surely a dead tie between the Associated Press’s 1964 description of “racially tinged explosions” which were set off “near the recently desegregated campus of the University of Alabama” and “across town near a Negro cafe”; and a 1953 Associated Press story that described the trial of two white men who kidnapped a black motorist and set him on fire as a “racially charged case.”
So, last night and this morning, instead of sleeping and enjoying life, I decided to go from website to website and channel to channel to see how Trump’s latest racism was covered by different news organizations, and whether it was actually called racism or racist by the press corps.
How The News Media Covered Trump's Racist Tweets
||The language used in the reporting
||Their online story refers to Trump’s attacks as statements where Democrats "called them racist and xenophobic.” Online graphics for CBS This Morning characterizes it as “racially charged tweets,” while news segments position the story with “critics” say Trump’s attacks are “racist.”
||Both in their online story and their Twitter post about it, the network’s news department refers to what happened as being about "attacks denounced as racist." Kate Snow said the "inflammatory" Trump tweets were different than most, "with many decrying it as racist." The Today show went with “some have branded his comments as racist." However, MSNBC’s on-air talent have been calling the tweets “racist” during broadcasts.
||The story posted online about Trump’s comments doesn't characterize the tweets as “racist” or “racially [insert euphemism],” but refers to Nancy Pelosi's condemnation of Trump being "xenophobic." ABC anchor Tom Llamas said Trump is "being called racist after firing off several tweets."On-air graphics for Good Morning America calls the situation one in which Trump used “racially charged” tweets to attack congresswomen, but some reports on the network call it a “racist attack.”
|The Wall Street Journal
||The paper titles the story as being over "racially charged tweets." An earlier version of the headline described “tweets decried as racist” instead.
|The New York Times
||Last night, Trump's tweets were called "a lowest-rung slur—one commonly and crudely used to single out the perceived foreignness of nonwhite, non-Christian people" in the Times' main story on the topic, but never used the word "racist" or "xenophobia" to describe it. A later edit changes the characterization of the tweets to “racially infused politics,” and being something that "was widely established as a racist trope." Their analysis of the situation characterizes it as comments which "fans the flames of racial fires."
||The BBC’s online post originally claimed the situation was one where Trump was "under fire for racially charged tweets," but was shifted a little to "accused of racism" for his actions.
||The network was the most explicit in calling the situation racism on-air and online. Their online story characterizes Trump's tweets as "racist attacks" which use "racist language." Their analysis of the story called Trump’s tweets his "most openly racist rhetoric yet."
||State TV’s Fox & Friends crew infamously giggled at Trump’s words and called him as the “comedian-in-chief.” Their website story headlined the incident last night as a "Twitter Slugfest" and only referred to the fact Democrats called Trump's tweets racist. Longtime Fox News contributor and former on-air host Brit Hume was excoriated on Twitter when he attempted to (wrongly) argue Trump’s tweets didn’t fit the dictionary definition of “racism.”
|The Los Angeles Times
||While the paper's editorial called Trump America's "bigot-in-chief," the characterization used in the main story about his attack refers to Trump's xenophobia and racism as an "insulting remark sometimes flung at new arrivals to the United States" and something “usually considered a racist taunt."
||The wire service describes the situation as one where Trump "starkly injected race into his criticisms" and notes a "long history of making racist remarks" by Trump, but doesn’t use the word racist to describe the tweets except to state Democrats "labeled the remarks racist."
||The crew over at Politico describe Trump's actions as being over "xenophobic terms" but don't characterize the racial implications, other than to quote Democrats calling the tweets racist.
||The website's original post referred to Trump's target as "immigrant legislators" before being corrected, and the story describes the tweets as a "nativist attack."
|The Huffington Post
||The online site’s banner image this morning depicted an image of Trump which characterized the tweets as a “racist screed,” and their story on the incident called it a “racist rant.”
Now, it’s one thing to point this out. It’s another thing to figure out the hows and whys of the continued use of this sophistry by people who should know better.
But I have some ideas.
- A famous quote attributed to, but disputed by, Michael Jordan goes: “Republicans buy shoes, too.” It allegedly was Jordan’s response to questions about his refusal to inject his star power into the 1990 Senate race between Democrat Harvey Gantt and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina. The campaign was noteworthy for being ugly and very racist on Helms’ part. The apprehension to use the words “racist” or “racism” is arguably based on economic considerations about alienating a significant part of the audience which is either racist or sympathizes with racists. And there are stories from reporters where they were forced to change accurate descriptions to keep from offending anyone in the audience.
During the controversy on Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette, when contestant Lee was found to have racist tweets, my publication wouldn’t let me say “racist.” It was “racially charged” or “racially sensitive,” etc. I would write “racist,” and then my editor would change it during the line editing process. The directive came from higher up than my direct editors, but I don’t know how high.
As a general rule, this publication takes the teeth out of anything you write because they’re so worried about offending anyone — literally anyone. So it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about men’s rights activists or feminism or racism. They like to make it more palatable.
- Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a self-identified liberal progressive, published a book of her five years researching Trump voters in Louisiana. According to Horchschild, Trump voters are “sensitive” to being called racist, avoid the topic, and defensively react to any suggestion of racism by refusing to consider the problem or listen because they feel shamed. Others have argued that for white southerners being called “racist” is a “trigger” and “slur” akin to the usual racist epithets for other ethnic groups. So they advocate people-first language where someone is not reducing an identity to a person’s views (i.e., the difference between calling someone a “racist,” and saying they’re “using racist language”). However, it’s also a convenient way to distance a person from their actions, and may be the reason the news media likes using the same people-first terminology in their reporting, since it allows the audience and reporters to sidestep any declarations of shame and guilt, or any chance of anyone being offended.
- Most of the cable pundits and columnists who drive political commentary tend to be middle-age to older white men. Most of the editors those people answer to are mostly middle-age to older white men. The people who own the news organizations those editors manage are overwhelmingly middle-age to older white men. While, in-and-of itself, it may not tell the entire story, older white guys tend to be more conservative in viewpoint on average, and a lack of diversity creates a situation where the people in charge of whether to use the word “racism” have never known what it’s like to be a victim of it. Add into this journalism has a long and sordid history of sexism, then think of how many of those same men may have issues with race which match the #MeToo stories of the last few years which they’ve only recently started to come to terms with? Then wonder how it affects coverage of a political party which has women and people of color saying things old media “fuddy-duddys” think is not “appropriate” or “respectful” according to Washington press corps etiquette standards, but whom the same people then refuse to call something racism or racist.