Doubling and tripling down on his bigoted commentary and racist tweets, Donald Trump is all but boasting that his re-election run will be fueled by hate speech and hardcore white grievance. Unlike anything ever seen before in American politics (remember, segregationist George Wallace didn't have a Twitter feed), Trump's re-election strategy is to basically spark a rhetorical race war. It would be nice if the news media had the courage to say so, but it’s clear that today's overwhelmingly white political press corps is not up to the challenge. It's a press corps that's tentatively treating the ugly specter of tribal racism as if it's just another wedge issue used to motivate voting blocs.
Already bullied by Trump, the D.C. press, which won't so much as label him a liar in its news pages, even though he's on pace to tell more than 16,000 lies as president, is ill-equipped to handle the looming challenge. Covering and confronting an openly racist presidential candidate requires confidence and courage, neither of which the halting Beltway press has been advertising in abundance during the Trump era.
Even outspoken Trump critics in the press who routinely hold him accountable admit to being concerned about what's coming. "We had a meeting about this @TheLastWord,” MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell tweeted this week. "I began & ended with the admission that I don’t know how to cover a presidential campaign of full throttle racism. We must begin by not pretending we know how to cover Trump. It’s a new challenge everyday & our old tools don’t work."
Recent coverage of Trump's racists escapades (such as demanding that congresswomen of color "go back" to where they came from and likening predominantly black American cities to rodent-infested hellholes) has highlighted the media's shortcomings, and that, as O'Donnell noted, the old tools don't work. This is especially true at a time when Beltway newsrooms lack diversity.
"The cable news media needs to stop treating Trump's racism like they are debating a proposed tax plan or budget deal," warned Sirius/XM host Dean Obeidallah. "There are NOT two sides to Trump's white supremacy. It's vile and it's inciting death threats against communities of color. Period!"
Yet over and over, the political press has treated Trump's hate speech as a political "tactic," which effectively downplays the damage of Trump's behavior.
If contempt of and disrespect for an entire race of people are presented as nothing more than a campaign strategy, as if Trump were taking a stance on climate change, it lightens the blow and makes the racism somehow seem less threatening. Thanks to the weak Trump coverage, racism is being framed as an issue that should not be judged too harshly, and that both sides can agree to disagree on.
"President Trump widened his war on critics of color, denouncing Al Sharpton as ‘a con man’ who ‘Hates Whites & Cops!’ after a weekend spent assailing a leading African-American congressman from Baltimore," The New York Times reported, as the newspaper once again danced around calling Trump's racist behavior racist. "Mr. Trump has told aides he sees his latest outbursts as smart strategy," the Times stressed.
Nowhere in the article did the Times itself conclude that Trump's behavior was racist. Incredibly, only when describing the Rev. Al Sharpton did the Times article use the R-word: "In taking on Mr. Sharpton, the president confronted a fellow veteran of New York’s often inflammatory racial politics." Meanwhile, Politico depicted Trump's racist taunts as a both-sides "feud."
We saw the same halting timidity weeks ago, when Trump posted obviously racist 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. Yet at the time, newsrooms across the country refused to accurately label the racist attacks. Likely nervous about sparking a right-wing media backlash, journalists tiptoed around Trump's open embrace of hate speech and his deeply racist leanings.
The media's apprehension regarding race comes just three months after the Associated Press updated its influential stylebook. In a key change, the AP 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" and “racially incendiary."
Unfortunately, when it comes the Trump, the AP isn't following its own advice. Instead, it's declining to accurately describe Trump's racist behavior, opting instead for weak "racial politics"-type language. "The president’s recent return to racial politics may be aimed at rallying his base of white working-class voters across rural America," the news service recently noted.
The pending challenge of covering an openly racist presidential candidate comes as newsrooms, and specifically D.C. bureaus, struggle with a lack of diversity and a lack of personal perspective. In 2017, only 17% of journalists at daily newspapers were people of color, yet 37% of the U.S. population is nonwhite. The problem is even more acute when the focus is on political coverage.
In 2016, 90% of the Times' political reporting team was white. It stands to reason that if newsrooms, and newsroom leadership positions, were filled with more people of color, outlets wouldn't be hosting these ridiculous, internal hand-wringing sessions about whether to label an obviously racist person a racist. "Black & brown ears can hear the racism clearly while our white colleagues engage in fruitless, if earnest, pedantic games," tweeted Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most powerful and emotional initial media responses to Trump's racist, dehumanizing tweets about Baltimore came from a black CNN anchor and Baltimore native, Victor Blackwell.
As mentioned, Trump's 2020 campaign strategy seems to be nothing short of sparking a rhetorical race war in America. Right now, the press has no idea how to cover that.
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.