Dancing around the word ‘racist’ in coverage of Trump

New England Patriots players kneeling on sidelines with arms linked during National Anthem at Gillette Stadium on September 24. Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Racially charged,”racially loaded,” “racially divisive.” When it comes to Donald Trump’s political approach in the context of his criticism of NFL players protesting during the National Anthem, journalists have no problem identifying the underlying issue, despite the president’s insistence to the contrary.

What they’re having a harder time with is the use of the word “racist” to describe those comments.

“I don’t think journalists have had the easiest time clearly labeling things for what they are,” Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie said at an event hosted by CJR in Charlottesville last week. “At a certain point we have to take the actions of groups of people, of voters of politicians, and apply to them the labels that fit. I see a reluctance around that when it comes to the president, the president’s supporters, and racism.”

Language debates have dogged Trump coverage since the moment he descended the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 and grounded his nascent campaign on a racist caricature of Mexican immigrants. They heated up after The New York Times referred to his birther crusade as a “lie” in a September 2016 front-page headline. After the Times repeated the L-word in an article about Trump’s spurious claim that millions had voted illegally, the paper’s Dan Barry wrote an analysis of why editors had chosen to use the word. From the childhood schoolyard to the grave,” Barry wrote, “this is a word neither used nor taken lightly.”

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(A Times spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by CJR about whether newsroom discussions touched on the potential use of “racist” in recent stories.)

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Placing labels on speech by any public figure runs the risk of editorialization, and newsroom decision makers are wary of overstepping conventional norms. “In general our policy is to try to be neutral and precise and as accurate as we possibly can be for the given situation,” John Daniszewski, the Associated Press’s editor at large for standards, tells CJR. “We’re very cautious about throwing around accusations of our own that characterize something as being racist. We would try to say what was done, and allow the reader to make their own judgement.”

Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior vice president of news and editorial director, echoes that approach, saying that his organization focuses on describing comments and tweets without inserting reporters’ conclusions into the story. “We treat ‘racist’ as we would other conclusory  labels. We use action words, instead,” Oreskes writes in a statement to CJR. “As we have said many times, it’s not our job to tell people what to think. It’s our job to give them the information they need to make informed decisions.” NPR has chosen not to refer to Trump’s falsehoods as “lies” in the past. In January, Oreskes said, “I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.”

The same is true, perhaps even more so, for the term “racist.” It’s a loaded word and resistance to using it is understandable, but dancing around it with euphemisms like “racially charged” does a disservice to the cause of reporting accurately in consideration of the full context of Trump’s words. When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick initially chose to sit through the National Anthem during the 2016 preseason (he later decided to take a knee so as not to dishonor servicemembers), he cited police brutality and the unequal treatment of minorities in America. It’s worth noting that Kaepernick’s protest began when Barack Obama was president, and Trump was widely expected to lose the election to Hillary Clinton. Other players who joined the protest spoke eloquently about their concerns.

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Words matter, particularly when they are used to address the most divisive and politically fraught issue in America. But accurate reporting requires dealing honestly with the context of the situation. A president who launched his campaign with racist comments about Mexican immigrants, who built his political profile on the racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in America, and who saw “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville last month has provided the evidence necessary to move beyond circumlocution.

Trump’s history of racism is long and well documented. He and his father, Fred Trump, were sued by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in the the 1970s for discriminatory rental practices. (The Trumps and their company entered into a consent decree in which they admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to several safeguards to ensure no discrimination in rental decisions occurred in the future.) In 1989, Trump took out full page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty so that it could be applied to the black and Latino teenagers known at the Central Park Five. Even after they were exonerated using DNA evidence, Trump refused to admit his error.

As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb writes, “It’s impossible not to be struck by Trump’s selective patriotism. It drives him to curse at black football players but leaves him struggling to create false equivalence between Nazis and anti-Fascists in Charlottesville.” Trump’s attacks against Kaepernick, other black athletes, and ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill are of a piece with previous actions in both his private and political life. Over the weekend, Cobb’s colleague David Remnick wrote of Trump’s speech in Alabama, “It is no longer a matter of ‘dog whistling.’ This is a form of racial demagoguery broadcast at the volume of a klaxon.”

Opinion writers and columnists have long felt free to label Trump’s words for what they are. Given the surfeit of evidence, of which his castigation of NFL players is only the latest piece, it’s time for reporters to do the same.

Meg Dalton contributed reporting for this story.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.