The R-Word Stakes a Claim in Public Media

Jul 18, 2019

In the last couple of days, journalists were once again tasked with deciding whether to apply the term “racist” – vs. the softer “racially tinged” or “racially charged” – to describe inflammatory tweets made by President Trump.

At issue was a series of tweets starting Sunday in which Trump attacked four progressive Democratic congresswomen, all members of color, asking why they don't just "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Three of the congresswomen were born in the U.S. and the fourth is a U.S. citizen.

Once again, some debate and some editorial memos ensued. To cite a few:

NPR’s Keith Woods, VP of newsroom training and diversity, argued that journalists should keep a “dispassionate distance” and steer clear of moral labeling. However, an editor's note above his column noted that “NPR made the decision, this week, to call President Trump's tweets about a group of Democratic congresswomen, ‘racist.’ "

Fox News Media Critic Howard Kurtz said journalists should not label the president’s tweets as racist “since the president denies any racial intent.”

Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, pronounced that “racist” is the proper term to apply to Trump’s tweets “because the ‘go-back” trope is deeply rooted in the history of racism in the U.S. “

To be sure, journalists have often wrangled with this issue in covering the current administration. A year and a half ago, NPR’s Code Switch podcast on race and diversity aired a couple of episodes after Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” counties.

But this week, the “racist” adjective seemed to land in a greater journalistic comfort zone, appearing regularly in both news headlines and precedes to program segments, including on several public broadcasting programs.

On the PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff said Trump was doubling down on “racist tweets” (July 15). The following day she noted the friction over Trump’s “racist rhetoric.”

Likewise, headlines on NPR Morning Edition segments said “President Trump is accused of making racist comments” (July 15) and “White House Spokesman Doesn’t Back Away from Trump’s Racist Tweets” (July 16) or ”House votes to condemn Trump’s racist tweets” (July 17).

Should journalists make a values judgment on a public official’s morality, some ask.  What if labeling a Trump comment as  ”racist” leads to journalists being viewed as Democratic operatives, appearing to side with those who condemn such language? How much does a history of similar remarks strengthen the case for a stronger description? Some say journalists should be accurate and report code words for what they are.

Of course, when the president makes outrageous or inflammatory remarks, he commands the news cycle for days or even weeks as journalists repeat his tweets in their coverage. And that echo chamber can lead to perceptions that journalists are de facto Republican operatives.

Some of the most helpful coverage for me came on Tuesday from NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins who explained that Republicans and Democrats define racism differently.

“Republicans are using an earlier definition in which the intention of the person is what’s critical,” she said. “Democrats are talking more and more about what the effect of racism is on people being affected and are their lives changing.”

I, for one, applaud the historical analysis from Peter Baker of the New York Times, who wrote on Sunday, ‘When it comes to race, Mr. Trump plays with fire like no other president in a century.”

But I wish that a strategic lens would be given as much emphasis as the moral lens. While assertions of morality may be what provokes outrage, political strategy begets voters. How is news coverage of hot-button remarks helping to execute an election game plan that will force Democrats to support some of their more outspoken members so they can later be attacked for progressive beliefs that they don’t all hold? And what is the role of journalists in helping to make this happen?

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