Journalism must show Trump as he is, not seek normalcy
The carpet for last night’s presidential debate was red. The set featured a bald eagle. The moderator carried a leather binder. It had all the trappings of a functioning American electoral system.
In the end, of course, it was only a set. After an interminable ninety minutes, it was rendered absurd by a president who has trashed so many of the other institutional norms of the country and the presidency.
For the past three and a half years, we have covered this man, and this administration, with a willful, Groundhog Day forgetfulness. Maybe this will be the day the briefing room isn’t a spigot of misinformation. Maybe for once we can quote his enablers without them lying. Maybe, over the sound of helicopters, the president will take responsibility. Yet, despite our urgent desire for normalcy, normal never happens. But we get up the next morning and do it all again.
Last night the political press counted down the minutes, gamed out the electoral college votes in play, speculated on debate strategies—pretended, in other words, that this time, on this night, Donald Trump would show up as a cogent, sentient leader.
Let’s put an end to this awful cycle. How about if, in the weeks left before the election, we try and cover this president for what he is, not what we want him to be? What if we try to be honest about what is happening, rather than trying to stuff Trump into a costume of normality that he refuses to wear anyway?
I cringed this morning when my phone pinged with a news alert from the New York Times: “Who won the debate?” it asked. The frame has lost all value. No one won the debate. There was no debate. Instead, there was a sitting president, angry, manic and abusive, wrecking the concept of a debate and mocking everyone who tried to make sense of it as anything else.
That’s the story. Old-school Twitter gasped when Dana Bash called the whole thing a “shit show” on CNN. But she was right, as was Rachel Maddow, when she began her post-debate segment on MSNBC calling into question the very notion of a post-debate discussion, given what had just happened.
Bash and Maddow are on the right track. The political press needs to take their lead. Let’s write about the thing that’s in front of us, as opposed to whatever it is we want it to be. Last night was about chaos and fear and the plain raving of a president who sees no path to a peaceful transfer of power. He said so before God and Chris Wallace and everyone else. The Proud Boys are standing by.
The fact that we have a president who has lost all mooring is itself the story, not a sidebar or an observation left to the opinion pages.
We have five weeks left. Let’s dispense with the artifice. When he seeks to change the subject with a ridiculous side show (Biden’s hidden ear piece!) ignore it or call it out for the absurdity it is. When he talks around his racism or his willingness to let people die from the coronavirus, point that out for what it is. When his spokespeople or acolytes spin events in ways that are farcical, call them propagandists and shut them down.
Good reporters are keen observers of the world around them. Tell us, finally, what you see.
A Woman Went Missing
The press has sometimes been criticized for its inability to focus on more than one major story at a time. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that our work is organized and presented in a way that doesn’t reflect lived experience. We separate “crime” reporting from “health” reporting from “business” and “politics” reporting—as if these subjects aren’t all related, as if the happenings of one beat cannot be best understood in the context of another, or stripped of categorization entirely. The artificial separation of news events may be why we have not, in large part, centered the troubling case of Vanessa Guillén.
In the past six months, as the deadly coronavirus pandemic has collided with a much older threat, systemic racism, we saw the connection of all things: a racist healthcare system, racialized and unchecked capitalism, willfully ignorant leadership, and the erasure of these links in media accounts. A major narrative emerged in coverage, about state violence against Black people, and the anti-racist uprisings in response. In the mix should have been Guillén, a twenty-year-old specialist in the United States Army who was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. On April 22, she went missing. According to her sister Mayra, Guillén had plans to spend the day hiking with friends. But she was unexpectedly summoned into work and, around 11:30am, stopped responding to Mayra’s text messages. Calls went straight to voicemail. Mayra reported her sister missing and drove three hours to Killeen, the city that surrounds Fort Hood. Officers initially refused to give her access to the area where her sister lived; for hours, the family says, they refused to shut down the base and search for Guillén. A day later, the Army Criminal Investigation Command opened an investigation. Only then did officials enter the armory where Guillén worked. There were her car keys, wallet, military ID, and barracks-room key—all left behind.
Local and national media have since covered the story, and Guillén’s family has been vocal, enlisting the help of a lawyer and celebrities such as Salma Hayek to publicize the case and pressure the military to act. In recent weeks, officials at the base have sent out hundreds of soldiers, who used drones, helicopters, and dogs to look for her. Guillén’s mother, Gloria, said during a news conference at Fort Hood, “If they find my daughter dead, I will shut down this base.”
This week, near the Leon River, about thirty miles from Fort Hood, men building a fence noticed a stench and what looked like hair protruding from the ground. They called the police. Local law enforcement and military officials, who had previously searched the area, returned and, with the help of cadaver dogs, found partial human remains that Guillén’s family believed to be hers. It was a shallow grave; concrete had been poured on top, and rainstorms had helped conceal it. Press accounts later reported that, after Guillén went missing, an unnamed witness saw a man struggling to lift a large Pelican-brand storage case into a car; a burnt storage lid of the same brand was found near the grave site.
Early on Wednesday, Killeen police approached a suspect named Aaron David Robinson, a twenty-year-old combat engineer from Illinois and a colleague of Guillén’s on the base. According to the Army, Robinson, realizing that he was about to be arrested, killed himself. A second suspect, an unnamed civilian woman, was arrested by Killeen police. Guillén’s sisters held another press conference with the family’s lawyer, this time demanding a congressional investigation of Fort Hood’s handling of the case. “They didn’t keep my sister safe,” Guillén’s younger sister Lupe said. “How can this happen at a military base?” (Army investigators deny that their efforts were less than aggressive.) Later that day, more human remains were found near the Leon River. They’ve yet to be identified by the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
The details of each life and death differ in important ways, but the press is always a character, often making the wrong choices about focus and framing.
Vanessa Guillén’s story is horrifying, yet it has not risen to the level of urgency with which we have treated other recent deaths. It’s difficult to say why, because the Guillén murder touches on many of the themes now in the news: a life endangered in the custody of officials; a woman of color gone from the world; denial and obstruction by police. At first, Army investigators claimed that Guillén had reported to a scheduled check-in the day she went missing. Later, they backtracked, saying that there had been an error in their paperwork. The investigators did not explain who made the error or why. Nor would they hand over information about who called Guillén into work that day, or about the whereabouts of her cellphone. Sharing this information, they said, could jeopardize the case. (Sound familiar?)
The Guillén story also links to #MeToo, since Guillén had previously spoken to family and friends about being sexually harassed by a superior. On Wednesday, the family’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, held a press conference in Washington, DC, during which she said that Guillén had told her mother, sisters, and other soldiers that a superior had been harassing her. Guillén said that a superior had intentionally walked in on her while she was showering and that she had been followed while she was running. The US military has a long, documented history of sexual assault, and of disappearances. Their families have complained about lackluster responses from military police. At a press conference on Thursday, military officials said they couldn’t corroborate any evidence that Guillén had been sexually harassed or that the allegations were connected to her disappearance; they also said that Robinson was not involved in the harassment allegations.
The unsolved disappearance of Guillén is the story of Breonna Taylor is the story of Nina Pop is the story of Tony McDade. The details of each life and death differ in important ways, but the press is always a character, often making the wrong choices about focus and framing. Investigators’ accounts of what happened are still murky; families are left grieving and without answers. Maybe if there were a video, Guillén’s life would have suddenly become of belated, widespread national import. Without a sense of connection to the bigger narratives in our midst, too many lives—and murders—go unnoticed. So long as violence against Black and brown people continues to happen in this country, the press will keep having opportunities to better handle these stories, to situate them in our reckonings with white supremacy and patriarchal abuse. But for Guillén, it seems that we are, again, too late.
Protest Periphrasis: How the words used to describe the actions of police hide their violence
Over the past week, in news coverage of the nationwide protests against police brutality, breezy, anodyne words like deploy, disperse, and engage have served as a gloss on state-licensed aggression, papering over municipal forces’ and National Guardsmen’s frequently appalling crowd-control tactics. Conversely, protesters—or “rioters”—are said to have hurled or thrown or fired objects at police: bottles of water, rocks, whatever is close at hand. When the authorities retaliate, making happy use of the heavier tools they brought to play with (rubber bullets, explosive paint canisters, tear gas), they are treated to extenuating phrasing, merely returning fire or defending themselves, even though it has not always been the case that they had anything to defend against or were retaliating at all. In some cities it has been abundantly clear, from eyewitness cellphone videos if not from local outlets’ coverage, that the cops were the instigators; not for nothing did Slate headline an article “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide.”
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But Slate ain’t everyone, and thus we wound up with a post early Wednesday morning on the website of KRMG, a Tulsa news-and-talk station, offering that local police had “used tear gas and pepper balls to disperse crowds.” Even in liberal Oakland, KCBS Radio began a May 30 dispatch: “Amid protests, demonstrators blocked Interstate 880, set fires, and trashed much of the downtown area before police dispersed them with tear gas and rubber bullets.” A chyron on CNN over the weekend read protesters launch objects as police release tear gas in minneapolis. And a recent New York Times tweet had it that, also in Minneapolis, “a photographer was shot in the eye,” while in DC “protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone.”
There is a linguistic war being waged within these formulations, with battle lines drawn across a couple of fronts. For starters, you have the issue of voice: When protesters perpetrated an act of violence, the Times, by dint of active construction, let you know precisely who had been targeted and who was to blame. In the case of the photographer, on the other hand, the passive voice obscured (as it always does) the party responsible for the act. Readers might well arrive at their own easy conclusion—but why accord this sort of rhetorical cover to the one side and not the other?
And then there is the matter of the words themselves, where the fault line extends back practically to time immemorial. English is a famously mongrel tongue, born of violence and bloodshed, invasion and conquest. Its modern form has come to comprise—very roughly speaking—one-quarter words of older, Germanic origin and three-quarters Latin, French, Greek, or “other.” The Latinate loans that passed into English tend to be multisyllabic, with accented and unstressed beats, and fall weightless on the ear, mellifluously benign, prettily dispassionate. Our Saxonic alternatives, by contrast, hit like a gut-punch: stern, short, sharp, harsh.
Now, returning to those earlier examples, you can see how the cops are often afforded the gentler idiom, the protesters subjected to all the lexical Sturm und Drang. On the police side of the ledger we have deploy (from Old French), engage (Anglo-French), disperse (Latin), return (Anglo-French), defend, and sweet release (both Latin by way of Anglo-French). Crossing over to the protesters, we’ve got hurl (likely from Low German), throw (Old English, and akin to a word from Old High German), and fire (ditto); block (Middle Dutch originating from Old High German), set (Old English via Old High German), and trash (likely Scandinavian, Old Norse passing into Old English); and strike (bedfellows OE and OHG, once again).
Why is this happening? I don’t mean to suggest that American journalists are consciously electing for the gussied-up French or Latin options as a means of tamping down on police brutality—rather that they’re merely repeating, unthinkingly, what’s been osmotically resorbed from years upon years’ worth of exposure to press-release English. Writers are incorrigible mimics, after all: we read a lot and sponge up and then rehash common collocations, (stale) turns of phrase, lumps of (lumpen) verbiage. Press releases traffic in smooth unobtrusive Latinate English, in passive voice; reporters inhale the releases, regurgitate them, and replicate literatim these public-relations-approved edge-sandings. (For more on the whys and wherefores of journalists’ overreliance on smoothed-over police-department PR argot, see my colleague Alexandria Neason’s “ ‘Officials Say…’ ” which tells the story of how the police-furnished narrative of a white Chicago cop’s slaying of a twenty-five-year-old Black man became the version repeated ad nauseam in papers of record.) But when it comes to the protesters, lacking such cached memory of all that calculated diction, we revert to what are, in fact, better instincts: active voice, dynamic verbs, headlines that (to crib from an old New York Post ad on the subway) “punch you in the eyeballs.”
That’s the kind of treatment that ought to be extended to descriptions of what the police are doing, right now, in virtually every major American city. They are not releasing or deploying tear gas, nor utilizing (pure French, note) rubber bullets, to disperse protesters; they are teargassing protesters, shooting protesters (and journalists), forcing restive elements from the streets. If the overriding maxim in journalism is to amplify unheard voices, with the secondary precept being to “tell it like it is,” we are failing to live up to either promise even at the level of our most basic tool: the words we use.
The uprising against police brutality is not about journalists
The violence American police are inflicting on those protesting police violence extends to journalists, too.
Freelance photojournalist Linda Tirado was permanently blinded in one eye by what she believes was a rubber bullet. Detroit police demanded a Free Press journalist show his press pass, and tear gassed him as he searched for the credential. Michael Adams of Vice filmed on his phone as Minnneapolis police told him to lie down on the ground of a local gas station—which he did, clutching his press pass and repeating the words “I am press”—and then soaked his face in pepper spray.
“I’ve covered protests for 15 years across the US,” tweeted CBS news correspondent Michael George on Sunday. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen police actively and intentionally target the press with rubber bullets, tear gas, and arrests.”
The presumption is that we’re being targeted, because being targeted means we’re important. The simple truth is that in a crowd, journalists are not separate. We’re not protected. We’re subject to the same soup of adrenaline, and rage, and terror as anyone else.
We must stop focusing on ourselves. The journalist breathlessly detailing their own victimhood has become a sub-genre of a story that is, and should be, about the killing of George Floyd, its systemic causes, and the chaotic hostility of a president who fetishizes violence perpetrated by the strong over the weak (from the safety of his bunker).
We are not worthier victims just because the fourth estate works to uphold democracy. It’s our job. And we’d do well to focus on those who don’t have the opportunity to write 800 words about their own importance afterward.
No, Trump did not ban travel from ‘Europe’
President Trump’s address to the nation last night was a mess. He announced that the US “will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days” starting tomorrow, when in fact, certain classes of individuals—not least US citizens and permanent residents—will be allowed to make the journey. (This caused mass confusion at several major airports.)
Trump stated that restrictions would also be applied to “trade and cargo” coming from Europe, when in fact, they won’t be. (This caused mass confusion on the markets.) He asserted that health insurance providers “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments,” when in fact, they’ve agreed to waive co-payments for coronavirus testing. (All of these errors caused mass confusion among journalists.)
Leaving aside, for now, that the ban is spuriously predicated and unlikely to be effective, there’s another issue here—Trump’s use of the term “Europe.” In his defense, “Europe” is a contested, ever-shifting, multifaceted concept. (It’s a long story involving Zeus turning into a bull, and, much more recently, Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Delors, and Boris Johnson; Kazakhstan is in Europe for soccer purposes, and Israel and Australia compete in the Eurovision Song Contest.)
Under almost any common definition, however, Trump has not banned travel from “Europe.” Rather, he has banned “all aliens who were physically present within the Schengen Area during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States.” The Schengen Area, named after an agreement signed in Luxembourg in 1985, is a bloc of 26 countries—Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland—between which movement is not (generally) restricted.
While the Schengen Agreement has been incorporated into European Union law, it is not coterminous with the EU. Several EU countries—including the Republic of Ireland, Croatia, and Romania—aren’t in Schengen, and several Schengen countries—including Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland—aren’t in the EU. Britain has never been in Schengen, and since January, it isn’t in the EU, either. And many other countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, the list goes on—don’t belong to either institution, but are very much in Europe.
None of these nuances stopped Trump from asserting a “Europe” travel ban, and some headline writers don’t appear to have been deterred, either. Many articles on the ban articulate, correctly, that it affects, on a temporary basis, foreign nationals (from any country) who have been present in any of 26 European countries in recent weeks. Yet many toplines and tweets use the phrase “Europe travel ban” as shorthand. That’s regrettable, in part because precision matters in journalism. (In this case, the phrase “Trump’s Europe travel ban” excludes the convenient fact—noticed by many outlets—that countries containing Trump golf clubs won’t be affected.)
But there’s something deeper at stake here, too. Travel bans like this one are dehumanizing. They lump complicated, disparate groups of people into arbitrarily-drawn buckets; their purpose is to define human beings—and, in this case, countries—into division, to stigmatize them, to make them the other. The shorthand we use to refer to these efforts really matters—if it’s lazy, we risk doing the divider’s work for them, and then some. To parrot Trump’s claim that he “suspended all travel from Europe” risks implying all sorts of fraught identity connotations. Are countries not covered by the ban—Britain, Ireland, Serbia, and so on—not really “in Europe”? This may seem pedantic—but Britain just had a four-year political war over a similar question.
In 2017, I argued that reporters should call Trump’s Muslim travel ban a “Muslim ban”—it was neither a ban on all Muslims, or even people from all Muslim countries, and yet the spirit of the policy, I wrote, was to discriminate and stigmatize on religious grounds, and we should not lose sight of that. The circumstances here are not entirely different—with his coronavirus travel ban, as with his Muslim one, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is seeking to create a scapegoat for rising American fear.
But European countries, clearly, are not subject to the same discrimination that Muslims are, from Trump or anyone else. What’s important, when choosing shorthand terms for complex policies, is to try and communicate something of the forces behind them. Unlike “Muslim travel ban,” “Europe travel ban,” as well as being wrong, doesn’t explain much about what Trump is trying to do here.