CNN Public Editor: Turning to a racist to talk about racism

Screenshot from CNN's segment

On Tuesday evening, a segment on Jake Tapper’s CNN show The Lead featured an interview with Richard Spencer, a white supremacist. Up for discussion was the fact that, over the weekend, Trump had tweeted that four Democratic members of Congress, all women of color—Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—should “go back” to where they came from. He followed this by telling reporters that if they are unhappy in the United States, they, too, should leave. When asked to defend these comments, Trump said that lots of people agree with him (true) and that his tweets were not racist (false).

On CNN, a correspondent named Sara Sidner explained that, even if Trump may not think that his tweets are racist, racists are happy about them. She read aloud various white supremacists’ statements in support of Trump. Still, Sidner said, there is a white supremacist who isn’t pleased with Trump: Spencer. And there he was, on air, ready to voice his take.

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Spencer wasn’t there to complain about Trump’s tweets because they were racist, but because they weren’t backed up by action. “I recognize the con game that is going on,” Spencer told CNN viewers. “He gives us nothing outside of racist tweets. And by racist tweets, I mean tweets that are meaningless and cheap and express the kind of sentiments you might hear from your drunk uncle while he’s watching [Sean] Hannity.” According to Spencer’s argument, Trump’s talk has not been matched by his policies. Promising mass deportations that predominantly target communities of color, trying to add a citizenship question to the census for the benefit of white representation, and cutting programs that benefit Black and brown people are, evidently, not enough.

“The CNN anchors didn’t understand that Spencer was trying to position Trump as a moderate and to mock other white supremacists who supported Trump,” Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, told The Daily Beast. “Spencer was saying that Trump was performing racism on Twitter, but that his policies do not go far enough to be considered support for white supremacists goals.”

Yet Sidner did seem to understand what Spencer was saying. In the segment, she said of white supremacists, “They say Trump is all talk and no action in maintaining white dominance in America.” 

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Spencer’s appearance on CNN was met with outrage. The main objection has been that giving Spencer a platform normalizes racism. To that, I would like to add another objection, which is: Why should what Richard Spencer thinks be our primary, secondary, or even tertiary concern? The president of the United States just told four elected women of color that they should leave the country. Surely the main point of interest here is not “But does Richard Spencer think Trump is sufficiently racist?” 

This isn’t to say that there’s no place for pointing out that white supremacists support Trump’s tweets. If Trump says incendiary things to rile up his base, and if white supremacists are included in that base, then it stands to reason that there is journalistic value in hearing their response to Trump’s tweets. But the other white supremacists quoted in the segment were just that—quoted, and not given screen time or the last word, as Spencer was. And if you are going to feature what white supremacists think, it would be wise to make clear that white supremacists are not, in fact, the final arbiters of what constitutes racism. 

The segment also included an interview with Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative reporter for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism. It did not include an interview with a brown or Black person (though it should be noted that Sidner herself is Black; her father is African-American, and she has discussed her identity on CNN). The omission was striking, given that the reactions of people who have been told by Trump to “go home,” concerning the links between his language and his policy agenda, pertain more to this conversation than Spencer’s attitudes. What, for example, does someone working on immigrant rights think of the white supremacist responses? Do they care? Does the vitriol make their work harder? Is it irrelevant? What does it mean to the most vulnerable and those working to protect them that white supremacists are pumped about Trump’s tweets? We don’t know, because instead of hearing from them, we got Richard Spencer.

To put it another way: the conversation around that segment is now about Spencer’s racism, not the racism at hand in the policy and rhetoric of Trump—ostensibly the focus of CNN’s interest. 

CNN’s vice president of communications, the spokesperson for The Lead, Sidner, and the senior director of communications for CNN’s Washington bureau did not reply to an emailed request for comment. Tapper tweeted that Sidner “covers racists and white supremacists for us (among other subjects) and does a great job. She did a taped package for cnn about the reaction of white supremacists to the president’s tweets.”

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Emily Tamkin serves as CJR’s public editor for CNN. See this primer for more information on our public editor project.