The Media Today

Letting Trump off the hook

August 6, 2019

Yesterday, Donald Trump—flanked, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, by Vice President Mike Pence and a portrait of George Washington—addressed the nation about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The setting was capital-P Presidential, but the speech was ludicrous. Trump invoked “unity, devotion, and love,” concepts about which he demonstrates no knowledge. He failed to address the El Paso shooter’s online screed, which contained clear echoes of Trump’s racist rhetoric. By mistake, he placed the Dayton shooting in Toledo.

Trump’s words were clearly lacking, but some members of the press gave him the benefit of the doubt. Today’s lead headline in the first edition of The New York Times—“Trump urges unity vs. racism”—was particularly egregious, and quickly attracted fierce backlash online. (The Times changed the headline for its second edition, but “Assailing hate but not guns” isn’t much of an improvement.) Early this morning, the top headline at the Times online was still crediting Trump with “condemning bigotry”; the subhead parroted Trump’s argument that “video games and mental health” are to blame for shootings, without pointing out that that isn’t true. “I have never received more texts from furious NYT reporters/writers than I have tonight,” Yashar Ali, a freelance journalist, tweeted. “They feel like their hard work is being sullied by a horrible headline. And they’re all blaming Dean Baquet,” the paper’s executive editor.

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The Times wasn’t the only offender: numerous headlines and story openers quoted Trump’s words without any effort at context. A prominent Washington Post headline asked, “Trump says white supremacy and sinister ideologies ‘must be defeated.’ Will he lead the way?” The poor choices of words bring to mind Beto O’Rourke’s admonishment of the media over the weekend: “Members of the press, what the fuck?! It’s these questions that you know the answers to.”

At least for the Times and the Post, the bad headlines topped thoughtful analyses that examine the role Trump has played in stoking hate. That wasn’t true everywhere, though. “Did you feel like some members of the media were straining to treat Trump as a ‘normal’ president on Monday?” CNN’s Brian Stelter asked in his newsletter. An article on the website of CBS, for example, quoted heavily from Trump’s address; only in the 11th paragraph, out of 13, does it note that Trump “will still face questions” about past rhetoric that “critics say” has fueled racial hatred. An NBC News story waited until the 27th paragraph to make a similar point about “Trump’s critics.” Both pieces led with Trump calling out white supremacy. A Time story didn’t note the context of Trump’s past rhetoric at all.

In his piece on Trump’s address, the Post’s Dan Balz wrote that “When he has been required to play the role of healer-in-chief, as all presidents have, he has soon after reverted to form.” True enough, but the core expectation here—that we require Trump to be a “healer-in-chief”—feels misplaced; like looking to an arsonist to lead the fire department. Why do some among us continue to seek healing from Trump? The answer isn’t specific to the press: Americans, especially at moments of great despair, relate to their president as the Dad-in-chief, a powerful figure who assures you that he knows just what to do, that everything will be OK. The press is perhaps too aware of this expectation to ignore it.

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But the premise of Trump’s healing address was a lie, and coverage of it—assuming that it merited attention at all—should have made fact its focus. Trump is culpable for hate in America; journalists should not give the impression that he is invested in working to fix it. Saying so isn’t the same as blaming Trump for individual atrocities without evidence, it holds him accountable for creating a climate that nurtures bigotry and violence. When Trump rails against an individual or group, commentators stress that his words have real-world consequences. When something that looks like a real-world consequence comes to pass, adopting Trump’s narrative defies logic.

By a quirk of fate, yesterday also saw the sentencing, in New York, of Cesar Sayoc, who mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN in October. (None of them detonated; Sayoc got 20 years in prison.) At the height of the pipe-bombs story, commentators stressed that they weren’t blaming Trump for the crime. During Sayoc’s trial, however, his lawyers argued that he was a “Donald Trump superfan” whose attacks were directly inspired by the president. And yet many of us persist in letting Trump off the hook.

Below, more on Trump and the shootings:

  • A dark history: On The Takeaway, on WNYC, Tanzina Vega spoke with Monica Muñoz Martinez, a professor at Brown University, and Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to situate the El Paso shooting in the context of anti-Latino violence across the American West. “Historians estimate that between 1910 to 1920, around 5,000 people of Mexican descent were killed or vanished,” Vega said.
  • The limits of journalism: For The Atlantic, John Temple, who was the editor of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in 1999, during the Columbine shooting, writes that he expected media coverage of that atrocity to be a tipping point in the gun debate. That’s not what happened. “Journalists feel the need to bear witness. But to the same horror, again and again?” Temple asks. “I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism—and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.”
  • 8chan: CJR’s Mathew Ingram explores the decision by Cloudflare, an online-services provider, to cut off 8chan, the extreme web forum where the El Paso shooter and at least two other mass murderers have posted racist screeds this year. “Cloudflare and similar hosting services are like power companies, operating the grid that keeps the lights on in the newsroom. Should the power company be deciding which companies or homes should be supplied with electricity?” Ingram asks. “The analogy breaks down when you consider how influential 8chan can be: keeping the lights on there illuminates bigotry.”
  • Silence: Yesterday, CNN invited 50 Republican lawmakers to discuss the shootings on air. Only one, Ted Yoho, a Florida Congressman, said yes.
  • Also on CNN: Brooke Baldwin anchored from Dayton yesterday. She counted out 30 seconds: the time it took a gunman to murder nine people and wound 37 others before police neutralized him.

Other notable stories:

  • It’s official: New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse, will acquire Gannett, its publishing rival, in a deal worth $1.4 billion. The merged entity, which will retain Gannett’s name and headquarters, will publish one in six daily newspapers in America. In a press release, New Media and Gannett said the merger would save up to $300 million a year in “cost synergies.” Journalists at affected titles fear mass layoffs in the near future; a memo sent to staff at Gannett acknowledged these concerns but was not especially reassuring. (The combined company will effectively have two CEOs; so much for synergies.) Poynter’s Rick Edmonds told the Post that the merger could set off similar moves among competitors, with McClatchy and Tribune a possible pairing.
  • BuzzFeed and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are fighting a court battle to remove the redactions from Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, citing the Freedom of Information Act. Yesterday, during oral arguments in the case, a judge appeared to endorse aspects of their reasoning. The judge could remove the redactions altogether, or he could take an intermediate step, reviewing them himself to assess their legality. Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn has more.
  • For CJR’s series on the world of criticism, Kyle Chayka follows up with David Velasco, who became editor in chief of Artforum, the art world’s most prominent magazine, in 2017, after a #MeToo scandal took down one of its publishers and sparked the resignations of several senior staffers. “Velasco’s appointment speaks to the efforts of a calcified institution to find a new way forward from complacency and silence,” Chayka writes. “The question is, can a veteran of that institution lead sincere reform?”
  • Yesterday, the Knight Foundation announced a $1.2 million donation to the Maynard Institute, an organization dedicated to improving diversity in newsrooms. The money, Poynter’s Doris Truong reports, will fund a program for news organizations. To start, “two organizations will see a specialist embedded in their newsrooms for six months to consult on improving content, including better informing underserved communities, and focusing on hiring and retention.”
  • Over the weekend, Britain’s Sunday Times published a column decrying the “elitist” practice of companies offering unpaid internships. The article, BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano reports, drew allegations of hypocrisy: The Sunday Times, as well as its sister paper The Times, commonly use unpaid workers, many of whom have “establishment connections.” When it comes to intern elitism, the US is just as bad: according to new findings from the Asian American Journalists Association, two thirds of last year’s interns at seven top national publications attended highly selective US colleges.
  • And on Galley, CJR’s discussion forum, Ingram has been hosting a series of interviews with interesting people in media, including Ezra Klein, of Vox, and Vivian Schiller, of Civil. This week’s interviewee is Casey Newton, who reports on the interface of technology and democracy for The Verge. You can get involved here.

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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.