The travel ban is still a Muslim ban, and the press should say so

September 26, 2017
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The inclusion of North Korea and Venezuela in President Trump’s latest border security directive has reignited a debate in the media: When does a Muslim ban stop being a “Muslim ban”? The latest round of coverage shows reporters and editors have hedged their bets.

The addition of two non-Muslim-majority nations doesn’t make the directive any less of a Muslim ban, as recent stories have noted. But the same reports struggled to capture that impression in headlines and shorthand descriptions. Leads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Reuters variously called the new directive a “travel ban” and “travel restrictions,” and retroactively applied the same antiseptic language to the policy’s previous—more overtly anti-Muslim—incarnations.

The Times:

President Trump on Sunday issued a new order indefinitely banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries, including most of the nations covered by his original travel ban, citing threats to national security posed by letting their citizens into the country.

The Post:

The Trump administration announced new restrictions Sunday on visitors from eight countries — an expansion of an existing travel ban that has spurred fierce legal debates over security, immigration and discrimination.

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Major outlets didn’t use “Muslim ban” as ubiquitous shorthand in news coverage when the president announced in January that citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries would no longer be permitted to enter the US. But most news organizations were careful to put faith front and center as consciously and concisely as possible.

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Those who didn’t were roundly criticized. When Wall Street Journal Editor Gerard Baker instructed his newsroom to avoid mentioning Islam in descriptions of the ban, the newsroom fought back. One inside source told Politico that Baker’s instructions amounted to an “unconscionable” whitewash.

Back then, the editorial board of the Times said that “Trump’s Muslim ban is cowardly and dangerous.” Yesterday, however, the same editorial board called the most recent iteration a “travel ban”—despite arguing that it was “almost identical” in form to the January version. That change of wording seems to mirror the press’s coverage in general: As time has passed and the ban has been challenged in court and altered by the government, the phrase “travel ban” has risen.

So why is “Muslim ban” out and “travel ban” in? One reason might be news organizations’ cagey approach to accuracy in a climate of media mistrust.

“I think it’s kind of complicated,” says Greg Sargent, an opinion writer at The Washington Post, in an interview with CJR. “On the one hand, you don’t want to oversimplify in a way that does violence to precision. The complication is to not let them get away with submerging the real motive behind the policy.”   

While absolute accuracy is always a virtue, it should sharpen, not blunt, media scrutiny of the government.

Sargent, among others, cites evidence that Trump promised a targeted Muslim travel ban throughout his campaign. Subsequent tweaks shouldn’t cloud those origins. The American Civil Liberties Union, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and others have stressed that the new travel order is still a “Muslim ban.” They argue the press shouldn’t shy away from saying so.

“‘Travel ban’ sounds almost trivial,” says Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns at Amnesty International USA. For Shah, the term also obscures a key distinction between Trump’s executive order on immigration from majority-Muslim countries and his order banning all refugees from entering the US—distinct policies that are often conflated.

Outlets from the Times to Breitbart have suggested that the new, broader immigration policy is an administration attempt to show the courts that border security, and not religion, is the animus behind the restrictions. The White House says the countries on this latest list are there because they failed to comply with US government requests to share information on their citizens.

But that logic is a stretch given Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the fact that hardly anyone travels to the US from North Korea anyway, and wording that limits Venezuela’s inclusion in the ban to the country’s rulers and their family members.

“There’s a strong faith element with some other things thrown in that are pretty mystifying. It has a feeling of ‘let’s throw in a few things to confuse; as a smokescreen,’” says Ann Cooper, a long-time foreign correspondent and international director of Columbia Journalism School. “As a journalist I’m not going to write that it is a ‘Muslim ban,’ but I am going to give space to experts who can explain why they think it is [a Muslim ban].”

There’s no question “Muslim ban” is an imprecise term. “It’s clearly not a ban on all Muslims coming into this country, and it applies to people who are not Muslims,” says John Daniszewski, Associated Press editor at large for standards.

But the phrase is hardly less precise now than it was at the beginning of the year, when it was used much more widely in the media. “Muslim ban” has always been shorthand for the idea that the countries it covered were singled out based on their majority faith—even if it didn’t cover all majority-Muslim countries. The addition of two non-Muslim-majority countries has hardly diluted the ban’s original intent given that Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and another newcomer, Chad, are also included. When Trump tweaked the policy in March, the Times editorial board referred to it as a “Muslim ban lite.” Why can’t the latest version be a “Muslim ban plus?”

The press should at least find a replacement term that adequately conveys the policy’s foundational principles. The ACLU used “Muslim ban 3.0.” Sargent of The Washington Post has recently called it a “thinly veiled Muslim ban” in his opinion writing. And on the news side, the AP’s Daniszewski says it’s fair to describe it as a ban on immigration from six majority Muslim countries and two others. (He’s yet to confirm that wording with AP editors.)

Whatever shorthand we use, journalists need to be careful to put faith squarely in the picture. “Travel ban” doesn’t adequately do that.

“I do think people should still be calling it a Muslim ban,” says Shah from Amnesty International. “When we change the language of the ban to match the Trump administration’s, we’re playing along with what’s clearly a litigation and public relations strategy on their part.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.