Trump’s immigration rhetoric and the media’s big midterms failure

The day before crucial midterm elections in America, a controversy around a racist ad, funded by President Trump’s reelection campaign and depicting a “caravan” of murderous criminals “invading” the US via its southern border, swelled in the mediasphere. While CNN declined to show the ad at all, NBC and MSNBC did broadcast it—until, that is, it aired to widespread outrage during Sunday Night Football on NBC. Yesterday, that network U-turned, promising to drop the ad “after further review” showed it to be “insensitive.” Fox, having already broadcast the ad 14 times, declared its own change of heart, also citing a “further review.”

That broadcasters needed more than one look to see the obvious racism in an obviously racist ad is remarkable, as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted last night. But those who refused to run it in the first place scarcely deserve greater credit. While the ad is abhorrent, it’s just the streamlined version of a narrative that has scored abundant free airtime across TV, radio, and print in recent weeks, making immigration the dominant media narrative of elections that could have been about so many other things. According to Media Matters for America, the Post and The New York Times had, as of Friday, run 115 print stories between them on the migrant caravan. The Trump ad controversy feels inadequate—a virtue signal from a media class that let the horse bolt the stable and now feels bad about it.

ICYMI: A reporter asked for 20 years of lottery winner data. After analyzing the records, he noticed something unusual.

As this immigration narrative developed, some prominent journalists suggested the media simply not carry much of Trump’s invective. (Michael Barbaro tweeted last week that the Times’s Daily podcast, which he hosts, was “deliberately playing down” rhetoric designed “to inflame the electorate before the midterms” that “just happens to be from the White House.”) With the caravan thousands of miles away from the US, the wall-to-wall breadth of coverage was clearly out of all proportion to its news value. And yet downplaying Trump’s persistent racist rhetoric doesn’t feel right, either. While the caravan is not, in itself, a pressing news story, the president whipping up a prolonged immigration panic surely is—especially when forthcoming elections have been framed as a referendum on said president.

Instead, when the media does cover Trump’s rhetoric, it should not amplify its misleading and dehumanizing components—a point Margaret Sullivan, Masha Gessen, and others have made convincingly elsewhere. Outlets should be harder-headed when describing the president’s language. Using the word “racist”, in particular, still feels to many old-school journalists like a violent transgression of the rules of objectivity, rather than a factual description of the president’s behavior. As a result, those who avoid the word look soft to some in the media, while those who use it look partisan to others.

Toward the beginning of the Trump presidency, the mediasphere indulged similar hand-wringing over the word “lie”; now, reporters and pundits across the media use it almost daily and the sky has still not fallen. Recent controversies like the Trump ad have tipped the media slightly closer to a similar conclusion about the word “racist”: Times reporter Astead W. Herndon tweeted that its clear use (for example, by CNN) “changed the entire conversation” around the ad.

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It’s a shame this conversation was sparked by Trump’s racist midterms talk, rather than pre-empting it. But the media will have to cover much more of the president’s immigration rhetoric going forward—especially once he pivots in earnest to his own re-election campaign. De-platforming this rhetoric for the next two years isn’t a tenable solution. Instead, the media should dial back the performative outrage and cut right to the heart of his words. It’s not a question of saying “racist” at will. It’s a question of saying it as often as Trump’s behavior demands it.

Below, more on election day in America:

  • “C-minus”: Despite noting some improvements on 2016, the Post’s Sullivan gives the US news media a C-minus for its midterms coverage. “Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose, which is why you’ve heard so very much about that migrant caravan in recent weeks,” she writes.
  • Known unknowns: After having their fingers burned two years ago, news organizations have been much more cautious with their election predictions—and use of polling—this time around. In his final pre-midterms column yesterday, Times polling maven Nate Cohn wrote that, in the House of Representatives, “two vastly different outcomes [a Democratic landslide or a close-run battle for control] remain easy to imagine… The difference turns on just a few percentage points across dozens of House districts that remain exceptionally close.”
  • “Blowing smoke”: In case you didn’t read it already, Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby took aim at election pundits late last week, writing that they have “no clue” how the midterms will shake out. “In a volatile environment where Trump has saturated every inch of our cultural fabric with politics, who the hell knows what’s going to happen?” Hamby asks. “The only currency to cling to in the post-Trump era is that all bets are off.”
  • Leaning in: Washington Post National Editor Steven Ginsberg has told his staff to “embrace not knowing” what will happen tonight, Politico’s Michael Calderone and Jason Schwartz report. “Editors and executives from the Times, Post, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News all told Politico that they will be prepared for any outcome—and will make sure their readers and viewers are, too.”
  • Plan your night: Politico also has this handy guide to what to expect—and when to expect it—from races around the country. And TVNewser lays out each network’s coverage plans.
  • All politics is local: Last week, Bloomberg broke out the issues that dominated political TV ads in different markets this election cycle. While Trump ruled the airwaves in pockets of the West Coast and the southeastern US, many areas saw kitchen-table issues take priority, with healthcare the top talking point nationwide. ICYMI, CJR recently published a series of dispatches on the local issues shaping midterms coverage around the country—many of which got lost amid national narratives like the caravan.


Other notable stories:

  • In CJR’s new print issue on race and journalism, Gabriel Arana crunches the numbers on diversity in US newsrooms. Predictably, they make for grim reading. “Despite being in majority-minority cities, the newsrooms of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, for instance, are both 81 percent white,” Arana notes. “The Washington Post is 70 percent white. Minorities make up 72 percent of the population of Los Angeles, but only 33 percent of the Los Angeles Times.”
  • Time’s new owners Marc and Lynne Benioff announced that Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal will also serve as the magazine’s CEO, overseeing all editorial and business efforts. The Journal’s Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg reports that Felsenthal is planning 60 new hires, including 30 on the editorial side.
  • Do you remember Super Typhoon Yutu? If you don’t, you’re not alone. When the world’s biggest storm of the year recently hit the Northern Mariana Islands, a US Commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, not a single national news crew covered it from the ground. Anita Hofschneider reports for CJR.
  • After a very public search, Amazon plans to split its second headquarters between Long Island City, Queens, and the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, the Times reports.
  • Also in CJR’s Race Issue, Karen K. Ho profiles the DJ and video blogger Jay Smooth. “You may not have heard of Jay Smooth,” Ho writes, “but his career has influenced the way a lot of journalists—as well as people outside of media—think and talk about music, culture, and modern life.” Ho was a panelist as we launched the new issue at Columbia Journalism School yesterday, alongside Adam Serwer, Errin Haines Whack, Jelani Cobb, and Lydia Polgreen. If you missed it, you can watch the whole thing here.

ICYMI: The wild-eyed coverage of the caravan

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.