The Media Today

Getting this week right

July 19, 2019

We’ve spent this week marinating in hate. Sunday morning, Donald Trump posted racist tweets targeting four Democratic representatives of color. His words infected American discourse and, by Wednesday, at a rally in North Carolina, his supporters were chanting “Send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and immigrated to the United States as a refugee; Trump stood silent, listening, for 13 seconds. Now, at the end of the week, as the responses to Trump continue to spin out in our politics, our media, and our culture, it feels like something permanent is at stake. “This is not about Omar anymore, or the other women of color who have been told by this president to ‘go back’ to their supposed countries of origin,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes. “It is about defending the idea that America should be a country for all its people… What Americans do now, in the face of this, will define us forever.”

So far, many news outlets have focused on assessing the short-term political implications of racist rhetoric. The New Yorker described “Donald Trump’s Calculated Racism,” as both a campaign play and a distraction tactic. Yesterday, the BBC asked, “Do Trump rally taunts mark new 2020 strategy?” The Associated Press looked across the aisle: “How to beat Trump? Dems divided as he rams race onto ballot.” The headline of today’s top New York Times story reads: “Trump Disavows ‘Send Her Back’ Chant as GOP Frets Over Ugly Phrase”; the first paragraph makes clear that the “fretting” is about the party’s electoral prospects, more than the bigotry. Reuters has a near-identical framing.

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The political reaction to Trump’s tweets and his supporters’ cheers is important—at least, elements of it are. The failure of top Republicans to call racism by its name merits response; so, too, does the understated approach of some in the Democratic leadership. Broadly speaking, however, coverage that accepts Trump’s racism as a strategic move feels credulous. First, it’s not clear that there is any coherent plan here—when has Trump been known for that? Senior Republicans told Axios that the tweets were carefully calculated, but other senior Republicans told HuffPost that’s nonsense. Even if this were a strategy, it doesn’t follow that it’s a smart one. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, a majority of Americans disapproved of the rhetoric in Trump’s weekend tweets. And we’ve been here before—recently. Ahead of last year’s midterms, Trump whipped up a panic about a “migrant caravan” en route to the border. The media duly hyperventilated. Republicans lost the midterms, and the phrase has scarcely been heard since.

On a deeper level, the focus on strategy feels trivial, and misplaced. Since the Trump era began, too many of us have sought, time and again, to bend ugly ideas and forces we don’t understand into a comprehensible narrative. Sometimes, that has meant treating racism as instrumental—as a ploy that can be understood within the conventional Beltway-journalism frameworks of power and popularity. Sometimes, it has meant intellectualizing racism: elevating self-appointed far-right thought leaders whose ideas we can engage with rationally, and thus beat in argument. (That this week saw the return to our screens of Richard Spencer should not be a surprise.)

But these approaches are inadequate. Racism is, first and foremost, a moral problem. In a dispatch from Trump’s rally that was published yesterday, HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias showed how we might center that fact. Headlined “A fascist Trump rally in Greenville,” the piece starts with the typical vox pops from Trump supporters. But then it broadens way out. Mathias asks scholars of fascism to weigh in on the rally. He also highlights instances of real-world violence inspired by Trump’s words—violence that allies fear Omar risks facing in the wake of this week’s presidential attacks.

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Mathias’s piece isn’t the only roadmap, but it’s commendable for attempting to grapple with bigger questions than just political horse-trading: How might history remember this moment, and how might it judge our response? On Twitter, Mathias’s HuffPost colleague Rowaida Abdelaziz shared the dispatch, calling it “chilling.” She continued: “This isn’t just about Ilhan Omar folks.”

Below, more from this week’s coverage:

  • “Trump voters are not the only voters”: Jamelle Bouie, a columnist at the Times, writes that the strategic focus of coverage reflects the voices that mainstream outlets choose to prioritize. Trump supporters are a minority but their views carry outsize weight, Bouie argues. By contrast, “the press isn’t hyper-solicitous of the views of black voters. Cable news doesn’t constantly turn to swing-state focus groups of black Democrats to gauge their opposition to the president.”
  • A shift in tone: Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, writes that in recent days the network’s coverage has turned its focus away from strategy. “There’s no agreement among media professionals as to how to manage our work fairly and truthfully in these incendiary times,” Bustillos argues. “But MSNBC has slowly become more willing to condemn the administration more explicitly.”
  • The view from the ground: Washington Post reporters in Michigan, Florida, Montana, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania asked residents in those areas what they thought of the “Send her back” chant. Toluse Olorunnipa collected their reactions: “The new rallying cry of Trump’s supporters unleashed emotional responses from people across the country, with some outraged by and others supportive of the president’s latest polarizing act.”

Other notable stories:

  • Gannett and GateHouse, America’s two biggest newspaper chains, are closing in on a merger, The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo and Dana Cimilluca report; if finalized, the combined company would own one in six daily newspapers nationwide. Executives at Gannett and GateHouse believe that joining forces will buy them two or three years—“until we figure it out.” Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor writes, “The ‘it’ is that long-hoped-for chimera of successful digital transformation.” Both companies have made cuts. Doctor expects that to continue.
  • On July 30 and 31, the second round of Democratic presidential debates will take place in Detroit. CNN will broadcast it; yesterday, the network conducted a live, on-air draw to determine the candidate line-ups for each night. (Twitter disagreed as to whether this was necessary.) Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were drawn together on night one; on night two, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will resume their rivalry from the first round of debates. Eric Swalwell, a California Congressman, has dropped out of the race; Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, will replace him on stage.
  • In the continued absence of formal White House press briefings, correspondents have come to rely on informal Q&As with Trump as he leaves the White House via the South Lawn. In recent months, reporters have increasingly used step ladders to stand out from the crowd and catch Trump’s eye at such moments, the Post’s Erik Wemple reports. In a note to reporters, Olivier Knox, outgoing president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, pushed back: “The risks of a ladder arms race outweigh the rewards.”
  • Last month, The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, revealed that it will soon shutter, leaving Youngstown without a newspaper. Yesterday, The Compass Experiment, a local news project run by McClatchy with support from Google, announced that it will launch a new, digital-only news site in the city—staffed by locals—to help plug the gap. In March, Emily Bell wrote for CJR that she’s skeptical of the McClatchy–Google partnership.
  • Following a lengthy court battle, the Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a newspaper in West Virginia, won access to a Drug Enforcement Administration database that tracks the path of every single pain pill sold in the United States. Yesterday, the Post published the data at the county and state levels. “These records provide an unprecedented look at the surge of legal pain pills that fueled the prescription opioid epidemic,” the Post writes.
  • For CJR, Clarence Leong reports that police in Hong Kong have targeted journalists amid a wave of protests; according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association, reporters have been “tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and beaten with batons.” On Sunday, several hundred journalists gathered for a silent march on police headquarters to protest mistreatment.
  • In October 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist in Malta, was killed by a car bomb; two months later, officials arrested three men on suspicion of her murder. This week, Malta’s attorney general finally brought formal charges against the men. The suspects now face trial, but legal experts say it could be years before proceedings begin.
  • And in Poland, Gazeta Polska—a right-wing newspaper that backs the ultra-conservative governing party, Law and Justice—plans to distribute stickers that bear the slogan “LGBT-free zone” next to a rainbow flag overlaid with a black cross. The deputy mayor of Warsaw pledged to file a formal complaint against the stickers with state prosecutors.

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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.