The Media Today

The media today: Trump’s ‘shithole’ remark sparks outrage and honesty from journalists

January 12, 2018

Meeting with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office, President Trump expressed his displeasure with the bipartisan immigration deal being discussed. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump asked, referencing immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations. The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey broke the story, reporting that Trump next suggested the US should instead prioritize people from countries such as Norway.

Trump’s words may have been shocking, but they can’t be seen as surprising. His history of racist comments stretches back decades, and it was only weeks ago that The New York Times reported that the president, again in an Oval Office meeting, said Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” and Nigerians who visit the US would never “go back to their huts.” Yesterday’s comments were nothing new for a man who launched his political profile on the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t a true American.

ICYMI: A media controversy comes to an explosive conclusion

Back in September, as Trump attacked African-American football players for kneeling during the National Anthem, I wrote that journalists have a difficult time labeling the president’s comments for what they are, and advocated for a more direct engagement with the racist nature of his words. Last night, on cable news at least, there was no dancing around the term. “Not racial. Not racially charged. Racist,” said CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Let’s not kid ourselves or dance around it. The sentiment the President expressed today is a racist sentiment.” Cooper’s colleague Don Lemon, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and The Daily Beast’s John Avlon, among others, used similarly pointed language.

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Engaging honestly and frankly with the president’s words isn’t just some act of grandstanding. It signals to segments of the audience who don’t need journalists to tell them which way the wind blows that reporters understand their fears and concerns. “These are times when news organizations lose the trust of minority communities and don’t even know it. For in not being explicit—or even journalistically honest—about the president’s racist remarks, they unintentionally reveal just who their valued audience really is,” wrote The Boston Globe’s Astead W. Herndon on Twitter.

RELATED: Dancing around the word ‘racist’ in coverage of Trump

The president’s profanity caused headaches for editors and producers not accustomed to using vulgar language in their reports and broadcasts. NBC’s Lester Holt was the only one of the network anchors to use the phrase in his nightly broadcast, while The New York Times went with “vulgar terms” in its print headline. The Post published “shithole” in its title (though kept it off the front page headline this morning). “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim,” Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told Washingtonian. “That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

The conversation over language probably received too much attention when the real problem with Trump’s comments was the racist message they conveyed. The firestorm surrounding his words felt like something new, but we’ll have to wait to see whether it represents a tipping point in how journalists talk and write about Trump’s racist comments and actions.

ICYMI: Blockbuster White House book claims its first victim

Below, more on the reaction to the controversy surrounding President Trump’s comments.

  • Concerns on Capitol Hill: The New York Times’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Thomas Kaplan report that Trump’s words caused alarm among lawmakers. “This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation,” said Republican Representative Mia Love, herself of Haitian descent.
  • Nothing to see here: Politico’s Cristiano Lima writes that conservative pundits brushed aside Trump ‘shithole countries’ remark.
  • Context matters: Jonathan Katz, who was in Haiti reporting for the AP when the 2010 earthquake struck, provided an excellent, concise history lesson on Twitter, explaining why countries like Haiti are poor.
  • How news outlets handled “shithole”: The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum surveyed the way print and broadcast outlets addressed Trump’s word choice.
  • Dawsey’s day: The Post’s Dawsey has had six bylines in the past 24 hours, including breaking the most talked-about story of the day. Props to him for the hustle.


Other notable stories

  • The end is nigh,” writes Digiday’s Lucia Moses in a story that preceded Facebook’s announcement that it will prioritize user content over publishers’ content. Mark Zuckerberg spoke to The New York Times’s Mike Isaac about the changes, which represent the “most significant overhaul in years to Facebook’s News Feed.”
  • Trump sat down Thursday morning with The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus, Michael C. Bender, Peter Nicholas, and Louise Radnofsky. Here’s their story on the interview, as well as the transcript.
  • The New York Times’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a great profile of Tonya Price—formerly Tonya Harding—which focuses heavily on media coverage, and Tonya’s reaction to that coverage. “A lot of what she said wasn’t true. She contradicted herself endlessly,” Brodesser-Akner writes. “But she reminded me of other people I’ve known who have survived trauma and abuse, and who tell their stories again and again to explain what had happened to them but also to process it themselves.”
  • For CJR, Christopher D. Cook reports on the Koch Foundation’s grants to journalism institutions like ASNE, Poynter, and PBS. In the past, the conservative Koch brothers have drawn criticism for their efforts to discourage and discredit journalism critical of their business and political operations.
  • Vox Media agreed to voluntarily recognize its editorial union, reports Variety’s Dave McNary. The move follows months of pressure from employees.
  • Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman examines the feedback loop between the president and Fox News. “With Roger Ailes gone, the network’s chief de-facto programmer is the president,” Sherman writes.

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