Three months ago the Associated Press updated its influential AP Stylebook, which news editors and producers across the country use as a guideline in terms of what language to use when covering today's current events. In a key and dramatic change, the AP this year began urging news outlets to accurately describe racist behavior when it's in the news, and to stop dancing around bigoted actions by describing them via timid euphemisms, such as "racially motivated," “racially incendiary,” and "racially tinged." Basically, according to the AP, if something's racist, then journalists should say so.
At the time, I urged news organizations to embrace the AP's suggestions and, specifically, to immediately apply the new language guidelines to Trump and his clear history of racist rhetoric. Over the weekend, though, most news organizations failed miserably at that task when Trump posted obviously racists tweets in reference to Democratic congresswomen of color and urged them to "go back" to the "crime infested" countries they came from—even though three of the four were born in the United States. The "go back" taunt has been a mainstay of racist rhetoric for generations among bigots who want to make America more white.
Yet scores of newsrooms refused to label the attacks as such. Leaning up against an old crutch, a Wall Street Journal headline called the tweets "racially charged." Likely nervous about sparking a right-wing media backlash, journalists continue to tiptoe around Trump's open embrace of hate speech and his deeply racist leanings.
Taunting Democratic "progressives" in Congress, Trump tweeted, "Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Trump appeared to be referring to first-year Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Only Omar, whose family left Somalia as refugees and moved to Minneapolis in 1997, was born outside the United States.
But instead of focusing on his blatant racism, the story of Trump's racist tweets was most often presented as a story about how Democrats were upset with Trump.
"His message was immediately seized upon by Democrats, who called it a racist trope," the New York Times reported. "Democrats immediately denounced the comments as racist," the Journal noted. From USA Today: "President Donald Trump's opponents accused him of xenophobia and racism on Sunday." Reuters couched the Trump outburst as, "a comment that was condemned by Democrats as racist," while ABC News passively suggested Trump was "being called a racist" for his tweets.
That's an obvious media cop-out, because the real story was not that Democrats were upset at Trump. The real story was that Trump spewed a venomous and public racist attack, unmatched in the history of United States presidents.
By hiding behind Democrats, newsrooms were basically saying: We're not going to address uncomfortable truths independently. Instead, we're going to present them in the form of a Democratic allegation (Trump's being racist!), and report the larger story as the two political parties facing off over something Trump tweeted. That's the press absolving itself of having to take any kind of editorial position on whether Trump is engaging in racist behavior. (To his credit, CNN's Brian Stelter on Sunday quickly labeled the tweets "straight-up racist," and he was right.)
It seems clear that news outlets don't want to take heat from conservatives and from the administration for calling Trump a racist. So even though they report on his deeply racist comments and tweets, reporters opt to have Trump "critics" leveling the charge against him, so they can wash their hands of any "liberal media bias" allegations.
Indeed, you can practically hear the newsroom refrains: 'We can't call him a racist!’ Just like, 'We can't call him a liar.' Why? He's both, and he advertises that fact on a near daily basis. Why has the press decided it can’t tell the truth about Trump, simply because the truth is so upsetting? Who decided journalists should protect the American people from a national conversation about what it means to our country to have a president who's clearly a pathological liar (he's on pace to tell 16,000 lies during four years in office), and a president who despises and disrespects people of color? Shielding the public from painful truths about Trump is not the press’ role.
Stating clearly and without apology what's happening in the nation's capital is the Washington press corps’ most important job, in terms of informing the public. What happened Sunday was that the president of the United States engaged in offensive and racist behavior. So why didn't the press report that clearly, and without apology?
This has always been the danger of normalizing Trump: the idea that journalists will become so used to the routine of not being truthful that they'll be unable to grasp reality when it's most needed, like when the president of the United States unleashes volcanic bouts of racism, targeting sitting members of Congress. With his weekend tweets, Trump once again shoved America into a dark place that no other chief executive has ever sunk to before. Trump's radical nature knows no bounds. Yet the press refuses to meet his actions with equally radical coverage. Instead, the press clings to a ho-hum formula that seems designed to bury the hate.
Time and time again, Trump basically dares the press to tell the public who he really is. He's not embarrassed by his racist outbursts. In fact, he seems to view them as a political asset. So why won't reporters tell the truth?
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.