Just say ‘racist’

Yesterday, the president of the United States “fanned the flames of a racial fire.” According to a panoply of major news outlets, Trump “starkly injected” “racially infused” and “racially charged” words into a morning tweetstorm; the language he used was “widely established as a racist trope” and “usually considered an ugly racist taunt.” The remarks were “called racist and xenophobic”; “denounced as racist”; an “example of ‘racism’” (note the quote marks).

What had Trump said to necessitate such pained lexical contortion? He’d told a group of left-wing Democratic Congresswomen to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places they came from.” Of the lawmakers Trump appeared to be targeting, all bar one—Ilhan Omar—were born in America. Irrespective of that context, Trump’s attack wasn’t racially charged; it was just racist, by any useful definition of the term. Why didn’t our media say so?

ICYMI: Social media giants are restricting research vital to journalism

Outlets including BuzzFeed, The Guardian, CNN, Mashable, and Rolling Stone did directly call Trump’s tweets “racist” in news articles. The New York Times—which was otherwise responsible for three of the tortured euphemisms above—managed it, too, in a post asking readers to submit their own experiences of the “go back” attack. On Twitter and in opinion pieces, individual reporters and commentators went further. Times columnist Charles M. Blow called Trump “a raging racist”; Goldie Taylor, editor-at-large at The Daily Beast, wrote that Trump’s tweets were “unapologetically racist,” and that “if you support him, so are you.” Jamil Smith, of Rolling Stone, tweeted: “President Trump is a white nationalist, and telling folks to go back to Africa—and to Palestine and Puerto Rico, apparently—is what white nationalists do.”

On the whole, however, the news desks of mainstream news organizations did not call the tweets racist, or at least did not do so consistently across their output. (CNN, for example, used “racist” and “racially charged” in different areas of its coverage.) “Racist” often appeared in quote marks, which was a cop-out: “Reporters and anchors took the story seriously but largely leaned on ‘critics,’ primarily Democrats, and cited their accusations of racism,” CNN’s Brian Stelter notes. Centering the voices of those who experience racism is important, but it is not, in itself, sufficient: here, “the significance of Trump’s words risked being lost in a partisan fog,” as Stelter points out. The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan was blunter still. “Historians will look back on the US media’s refusal to use the L (lie) and R (racist) words in relation to Trump as one of the most inexcusable, cowardly and shameful features of this horrific political and media era,” he tweeted.

The debate around the “R word” is not new; nor, at this point, does it seem especially controversial. The Associated Press Stylebook—a trusted arbiter for newsrooms nationwide that is hardly known for its leftist radicalism—ruled in March that we should “not use racially charged or similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.” (Interestingly, the AP’s lead story on Trump’s tweets does not use either term without attribution.) So why do the euphemisms persist? As has been the case with the “L word,” perhaps a minute parsing of Trump’s intentions is responsible. (Did he mean to be racist/lie? How can we really know…) Maybe institutional style guides have not been adequately updated amid the unceasing torrent of news. The most likely explanation is, perhaps, the simplest: a residual, old-school squeamishness in newsrooms around charged words that—before Trump broke all the rules, at least—smacked of opinion or activism.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Calling a president’s words “racist” or “a lie” can legitimately be thorny. Should we throw the words around? Probably not. But we should use them when they accurately reflect the truth. Very simply, that’s our job. Go back to where you came from is textbook racism. When we contort ourselves to dance around that fact, the truth is injured.

Below, more on Trump’s words and the weekend news cycle:

  • “Say it with me: Racism”: In September 2017, CJR’s Pete Vernon argued that the press should drop the euphemisms around Trump’s remarks on anthem protests in the NFL. Writing for Nieman Lab last year, Errin Haines Whack—who, as national writer on race and ethnicity for the AP, helped craft its new stylebook entry—wrote for Nieman Lab that “we should be asking ourselves and our colleagues why race continues to be treated like a four-letter word.” Haines Whack detailed her life on the race beat for CJR’s Fall 2018 print issue on race and journalism. Read all the articles from the issue here.
  • The Fox hole: Were Trump’s racist tweets inspired by Fox News? Last week, Tucker Carlson called Omar “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country”; on Sunday morning, Fox & Friends ran a segment about Omar and the other apparent targets of Trump’s rant—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—about 20 minutes before Trump tweeted. Later, the show’s hosts pulled the tweets on screen; Jedediah Bila called them “very comedic.”
  • The wider context: Several outlets situated the tweets in the context of Trump’s past racist remarks; some called them a campaigning stunt. But the more immediate context—pre-announced ICE raids designed, very literally, to send undocumented families back where they came from—got a bit lost. The raids were not as extensive as advertised; nonetheless, they caused fear and panic in immigrant communities nationwide. Writing on Friday, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, called the planned raids a “wretched, disturbing, cynical thing: a campaign event for the re-election of Donald Trump, aimed at generating a highlight reel for the fringiest edges of his base.”


Other notable stories:

  • Despite worrying projections late last week, Hurricane Barry “failed to live up to its threat” in Louisiana over the weekend, the (recently merged) New Orleans Times-Picayune/Advocate reports. (Coastal parishes were hit hard, and thousands of people were left without power.) As the storm prepared to pass through, local journalists criticized the national news media for scaremongering. Per Lamar White, Jr., of the Bayou Brief, outlets including MSNBC and the Post “misrepresented the on-the-ground reality,” and showed a poor understanding of flooding issues in New Orleans.
  • On Saturday, parts of Manhattan suffered a power outage42 years to the day after the famous blackout of 1977. The affected area included several newsrooms; NBC’s used backup generators to stay on the air. Mayor Bill de Blasio called into CNN from Iowa, where he was campaigning for president. NY1’s Juan Manuel Benítez predicted that the split-screen optics “will be trouble all week” for de Blasio. So far, New York media is proving Benítez right: the front pages of today’s New York Post and Daily News are both scathing of the mayor.
  • On Friday, the Journal reported that the Federal Trade Commission has recommended a $5 billion fine for Facebook following an investigation pegged to the Cambridge Analytica episode and other data-privacy scandals. The fine is by far the biggest ever issued by the FTC and comes with regulatory strings attached—but, as Nilay Patel writes for The Verge, it barely scratches the surface of Facebook’s revenue; the platform’s stock price actually went up after news of the fine broke. “Fines and punishments are only effective when they provide negative consequences for bad behavior,” Patel argues.
  • Also on Friday, counter-terrorism police in the UK launched a criminal probe into the leak of diplomatic cables in which Britain’s (now former) ambassador to the US excoriated Trump; per The Sunday Times, a rogue civil servant is suspected. In a poorly received statement, police officials advised British journalists to return all leaked information in their possession to the government, and suggested those who don’t could face charges. The UK’s two candidates for prime minister both spoke out in support of the press’s right to publish; the police later rowed back. The Mail, which first published the leaked cables, was not cowed: on Saturday, it dropped more of them, related to the Iran nuclear deal.
  • For CJR, Jake Pitre writes that the PR and media buzz surrounding Pride Month “poses something of a dilemma” for queer journalists. “It can be a welcome boost in income, and an opportunity to get bylines,” Pitre writes. “But some assignments reek of tokenism; in many cases, straight editors think of commissioning queer writers only during the month of June, and mostly for stories of personal trauma or cultural appropriation.”
  • Recently, an immigration appeals board ruled that Manuel Duran, a Memphis-based reporter who was detained while covering a protest in 2018, should be released; the panel agreed with the cornerstone of his asylum claim, that his native El Salvador is not safe for journalists. Last week, Duran was freed on bond, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports. He still faces deportation proceedings, but the clock has been reset.
  • In Alabama, Goodloe Sutton—the Linden Democrat-Reporter owner who sparked outrage with a February editorial supporting the return of the KKK—sold the paper and retired, the AP reports. Following this year’s backlash, Sutton initially tried to transfer management of the paper to its sole employee, Elecia Dexter, a Black woman, but she soon stepped back, citing Sutton’s continued interference. In March, CJR’s Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason spoke with Dexter for our podcast, The Kicker.
  • Late last week, R. Kelly—the R&B singer who already faces a state sex-abuse case and multiple civil suits—was arrested on federal charges including kidnapping, forced labor, and the distribution of child pornography. Per Stephanie Pagones and Yaron Steinbuch, of Page Six, the arrest came about after a Homeland Security agent watched interviews with Kelly’s victims in Surviving R. Kelly, the recent Lifetime series by Dream Hampton.
  • And militants in Kismayo, Somalia, killed at least 27 people in a hotel attack on Friday. Hodan Nalayeh, a Canadian-born journalist who told positive stories about the war-torn country and founded the world’s first English-language TV show for the Somali diaspora, was among the dead. NBC’s Yuliya Talmazan and Charlene Gubash have an obituary.

ICYMI: Explaining a Novel to Pakistani Intelligence

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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