How to cover Kanye West: Not so much.

October 12, 2018
Kanye West in the Oval Office. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fans of Kanye West, from any era, are by now familiar with the vertigo of watching his descent into irrationality, and with the strangeness of watching a man who once seemed so capable of seeing you publicly turn away. Some of us have coped by choosing to disengage with his noise. That choice, one of attention and resources, is familiar to me as a journalist. Every day, news outlets determine what the most important news will be and how it will be framed. So it has been disappointing for me to see that, when it comes to West, news organizations seem to make the wrong choice every time.

For two years now, journalists have wrestled with—and argued over—how to cover President Trump, given his frequent flurries of tweets, lies, and otherwise bombastic statements. Whatever lessons have been learned, however, seem not to translate when it comes to West, a man who similarly spews nonsense—even as no argument about inherent newsworthiness can be made. Yesterday, West’s meeting with Trump at the White House inspired a nausea-inducing round of rubbernecking coverage from countless outlets: Look at crazy Kanye! He’s wearing a MAGA hat again! Superman!

To news crews all too eager to broadcast the good word, West preached the gospel of inaccuracy—which, as Geoff Bennett, an NBC News correspondent, pointed out on Twitter, has its roots in 1970’s GOP racism. Journalists covered the meeting, and its backlash, exhaustingly. (“I couldn’t even watch it, I had to turn the television off,” Don Lemon said on CNN.) Much of the post-meeting coverage included needed fact-checking and righteous indignation, but that we covered it at all—after ample time to learn what can be expected from such stunts—demonstrates an unwillingness of editors to miss an opportunity for traffic.

ICYMI: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

Early this week, many journalists were quick to chastise USA Today—rightfully—for publishing an op-ed, written by Trump, that was full of inaccuracies. A day later, as an afterthought, the paper published a thorough fact-check. But the damage was done. The same holds true of the media compulsion to walk into a room with West, stick cameras in his face, and wait for bunk—only to later condemn it, pretending that journalists had no role in producing what they’d covered. Instead of walking into this cyclical trap, we ought to devote more time to thorough reporting that goes beyond the spectacle: Audiences need help understanding the parallels between his speech and right-wing, extremist talking points. Many of the messages West spouts are drawn from those routinely employed by conservative bloggers on YouTube, which is said to be profiting off of the radicalization of Americans. Couldn’t reporters focus more attention on that?

It isn’t enough, after a day of disseminating falsehoods, to simply lament the amount of attention given to West relative to any number of other national and global disasters—hurricanes, American charities that protect rapists, the years long water crisis in Flint, voter suppression in Georgia. It’s not that these stories aren’t being covered, but the amount of air time offered to the West story, especially on cable news, demands serious reconsideration. If we are all tired of hearing from West, it is entirely within our power to help drown out the noise. This is not an argument that what he says is of no consequence. It is a request that we decline to be complicit in exacerbating those consequences. And I would be remiss if I failed to point out the media’s apparent glee in covering a black man widely thought to be unstable.

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Ultimately, the root of my discomfort with days like yesterday is this sobering reality: The media acted as an ally to West in his spreading of derogatory, factually bankrupt viewpoints. And given the racial homogeneity of our industry, few of the people sent to report on them stand to be tangibly hurt by them.

ICYMI: “Almost every sentence contained a misleading statement”: USA Today heavily criticized for op-ed

Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.