Good news and bad news about media coverage of Trump’s racist rants

I’m spending this week experimenting with different possible forms of output for a new project I’m pursuing that involves a daily critique of American political journalism. The first lesson from today is that I’m going to have to wake up a lot earlier if I want to be done by noon ET, which seems like an important goal. The second is that there is so much to write about every single day (and maybe more on Mondays.) Should I cram everything into one column? Create individual items? More to come later. Please share your thoughts in comments, or at froomkin@whitehousewatch.com.

Rep. Elijah Cummings chairing the House Oversight Committee
Rep. Elijah Cummings chairing the House Oversight Committee
Journalists in our major newsrooms are getting closer – but not nearly close enough — to adequately contextualizing Trump’s racism in their news reports.

It’s a sign of progress that they are no longer reflexively relegating discussion of the implications of his racist comments to “critics”. But they are still being way too euphemistic — so when Trump says something that almost anyone would reasonably call racist, it’s still more often called “racially inflammatory,” or part of an “overt racial debate.”

Another good step is that reporters are increasingly calling out Trump’s 2020 political strategy for what it is: a blatant attempt to sow division and energize an angry white populace.

But they’re not raising the obvious moral dimensions. They’re not sufficiently citing Trump’s long history of racist statements and actions to make the case that this is a fundamental element of his character. They give too much credence to denials that Trump is being racist. And they’re not capturing how abnormal – how radical – it is that neither he nor his administration are even paying lip service to pluralism, in either words or action.

Plus, the headlines still really suck.

Consider this one, over a Peter Baker piece on Sunday: Trump Accuses Black Congressman and Allies of Being Racist, Deepening Feud. There is nothing there to indicate the ridiculousness of Trump’s charge; the headline simply transmits it. And it is absurd false equivalence to suggest that there is a “feud” between the two men, when Cummings has conducted himself with dignity and Trump is essentially having a tantrum.

And that was not even the original headline, which ProPublica’s deputy managing editor spotted and critiqued:

Baker’s lede also provided none of the vital context it should have, simply paraphrasing Trump and casting the episode as a partisan dispute:

President Trump escalated his attack on an African-American congressman on Sunday by accusing the lawmaker and his allies of being the racist ones as an acrimonious debate with Democrats in Congress hit a new and increasingly divisive stage.

Baker’s pushback amounted to noting that when Trump “referred to Mr. Cummings as a racist” he did so “without explaining why.” And consider his “nut graph”:

Most modern presidents have shied away from overt racial debates, but Mr. Trump seems to be going out of his way lately to engage in one as he seeks to mobilize his base heading into an election year.

Politico Playbook gushed that it was “quite the paragraph” — as if it were a bold statement. But it’s euphemistic garbage, justifiably inspiring mockery from a Los Angeles Times national correspondent and the editor of Washingtonian:

Trump essentially called Baltimore residents subhuman – as horrific and dangerous and fraught a statement as he has ever made, up there with calling African countries “shitholes”. That’s racism. Hell, it’s virtually the language of eugenics.

Baker could have taken a few lessons from CNN anchor Victor Blackwell, whose justifiably emotional monologue has now been viewed several million times. Here’s the transcript.

Nothing Blackwell said would have been out of place in a straight news story. His voice broke as he quoted Trump saying “that no human would want to live there” and he concluded: “They are Americans, too.”

Baker does deserve credit for addressing an important truth about Trump that reporters often elide: That he frequently (and sometimes so transparently it’s laughable) projects his own faults onto his opponents. Other reporters could take note:

The president’s counterattack is a common strategy he has used since entering politics, throwing accusations against him back on his accusers. He often alleges that critics are stupid, mentally unbalanced or losing a step through age, all things he himself has been repeatedly accused of. As he has provoked a racially inflammatory fight in recent weeks, he has asserted that anyone calling him racist must themselves be racist.

The Washington Post coverage showed more promise. Consider the article headlined Trump campaign sees political advantage in a divisive appeal to working-class white voters, by Toluse Olorunnipa and Ashley Parker.

They came awfully close to flatly reporting that Trump’s Republican party is embracing racism as a campaign strategy. But they flinched – instead, repeatedly allowing Republicans to vaguely deny that it’s actually racism. So Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh was quoted saying: “They’re trying to say anyone who supports this president is racist.”

On the one hand, “Trump’s advisers” have concluded “that the overall message sent by such attacks is good for the president among his political base — resonating strongly with the white working-class voters he needs to win reelection in 2020.” But on the other hand, Republican strategy is “to find ways to fuse Trump’s nativist rhetoric with a love-it-or-leave-it appeal to patriotism” while “seeking to avoid” Trump’s occasional “overtly racist language.”

No. Racism is not a bug of the 2020 campaign; it’s a feature.

Similarly, in the Washington Post article ‘Louder and more hateful’: Big-city leaders say Trump’s attacks on Baltimore are escalation of his strategy to denigrate diverse, liberal areas, David Nakamura made a strong case that Trump employs “rhetoric that paints those areas of the country as fundamentally less American than whiter, more conservative strongholds.”

But the word “racist” only appeared in quotes.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter discussed how difficult it is for the press to state, for instance, that Trump’s “racist and ridiculous stereotyping of a part of the country is damaging to the country as a whole.”

One of Stelter’s guests was Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik, who then wrote a column about his appearance on the show:

I argued for firing back at [Trump] with facts to dispute his claims and consistently looking at his words and acts though a moral prism.

Many of us in the press shy away from talk of morality and moral behavior because we think it will make us seem biased in some way. But with an amoral president — and Trump certainly fills that bill — a moral framework is necessary to remind citizens of how craven some actions of this president truly are. Without that moral context, I fear his craven, cruel and hateful words and acts will become normalized.

The way Trump continues to game the press in stories like this was vividly illustrated just this morning, with another Peter Baker story on the top of the New York Times website, this one headlined Trump Lashes Out at Al Sharpton, Saying He ‘Hates Whites’. Such nonsense.

But the way the press can push back was illustrated by the Washington Post, which instead of handing the megaphone to Trump, boosting his lie, handed the megaphone to Sharpton.

(More later and all this week.)

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