Editor’s Note: A potentially inappropriate phrase has been deleted from this article. The author was unaware of the phrase’s racial history and regrets the oversight.
An extraordinary thing happened in the aftermath of shithole-gate. Some television news anchors, such as CNN’s Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, called the current president of the United States a racist.
They’re right; he is. In referring to majority-black countries such as Haiti in a closed-door meeting last week, President Donald Trump is credibly alleged, by multiple lawmakers in attendance, to have used the word “shithole.”
Apparently, immigrants from Norway are welcome in Trump’s America, but those with a darker skin tone need not apply.
It’s not the first time the president has shown his true colors. In August, Trump gave a speech addressing the deadly white nationalist rally held on and near the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville.
As the New York Times captured the president’s words:
Abandoning his precisely chosen and carefully delivered condemnations of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis from a day earlier, the president furiously stuck by his initial reaction to the unrest in Charlottesville. He drew the very moral equivalency for which a bipartisan chorus, and his own advisers, had already criticized him.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” the president said in a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”
The president is a racist. But should journalists call him that?
It’s a difficult question. The answer likely depends on context and usage.
Journalists have an obligation to report the truth, but there’s a second obligation to refrain from needlessly inflammatory language. One could merely state Trump’s racist rhetoric, and the average reader would conclude the president is racist without the journalist making the connection explicitly. This gives the audience the power of interpreting the facts as they see fit — an important outcome in a well-functioning liberal democracy.
A sort-of halfway point that many journalists have taken is to call the remarks themselves racist, while leaving evaluation of the speaker to the readers’ personal judgement.
This is a good fall-back if one is uncertain how to proceed, but it may be overused. At some point, racists remarks do indeed certify the speaker as racist. The question is when should a journalist point that out?
Reporters shouldn’t ignore the blatantly obvious in attempting to adhere to a false dichotomy. Sometimes one side is clearly more at fault than the other. Our two-party partisan divide would have many a stalwart editor believe both Democrats and Republicans err with enough frequency that negative pieces can be counterbalanced, which is sometimes true. But, often, there comes a time when one candidate’s blunders are clearly of a different level than another’s.
This happened in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. While Hillary Clinton had trouble with email, a sin, for sure, her oversight was certainly less severe than the race-baiting, anti-democratic proposals of her Republican counterpart.
Publications varied in their responses to the Trump candidacy. It was hard for many in the balance-oriented industry to run a greater number of negative pieces on the Republican than on the Democrat, so some simply didn’t. That was a mistake. Journalists need not completely overlook Clinton’s relatively minor faults to more adequately investigate the glaring blemishes on Trump’s record.
That’s true now, as well. Of course, we aren’t currently in a presidential election year, so it may be easier for journalists to countenance criticism of the Oval Office occupant when he alone commands center-stage. But it is necessary to call a fig a fig when you profess to speak plainly — as long as the defining is for informational, not emotional, purposes.
I believe journalists shouldn’t be afraid to refer to Trump as a racist. He clearly is, so tell the truth and call him out. Readers will respect you for it, and you’ll be more closely adhering to your primary obligation of disseminating truth. But use the term only when necessary to convey a certain reality to the audience. I don’t need to be told the president is a racist in a piece on net-neutrality, say, nor in a story on Republican tax reform.
But for stories on shithole-gate, and the shitstorm it’s produced, the r-word should be fair game. ■