As first reported in the New York Times, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy made some newsworthy statements in an April 19 news conference: “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”
The media has a great deal of experience in how to shorthand remarks that slight minorities, thanks to folks like Bundy and Ted Nugent and Phil Robertson. A chyron that surfaced on the screen of a CNN broadcast this morning expressed the quite obvious characterization:
Yet pockets of extreme caution in abridging Bundy’s nastiness aren’t hard to find. This morning’s Washington Post, for instance, called Bundy’s riff “incendiary remarks” in a story about Republicans backing away from the rancher. A headline on the continuation of the front-page piece used this language: “GOP cuts ties with rancher after racial remarks.”
In a follow-up story on the remarks, the New York Times pursued a similar angle: “Rancher’s Views on Race Send Supporters Fleeing.” That headline did NOT read, “Rancher’s Putrid Racism Sends Supporters Fleeing.”
When asked whether that wording “whitewashed” the horror of Bundy’s comments, New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett replied, “I wasn’t involved in any specific discussion about the characterization, but I’d say this is certainly a case where a quote can speak for itself. We quoted specifically and at length from Bundy’s remarks, so I can’t see how we could be viewed as ‘whitewashing’ what he said.” Very well.
Nagourney, who shared the byline on the piece, strikes much the same sentiment: “I really think those remarks from him kind of say it all. It’s a news story, rather than an opinion column or blog, so I think the description is adequate. From my perspective, it’s usually better to show rather than to tell.”
Now behold the restraint and discipline of the Associated Press. In this roundup of the events, reporter Michelle Rindels steers away from encapsulating them at all, instead choosing to paraphrase them. Here’s the lede: “A Nevada rancher who became a conservative folk hero for standing up to the government in a fight over grazing rights lost some of his staunch defenders after wondering aloud whether blacks might have had it better under slavery.”
Paul Colford, a spokesman for the AP, says that the “slug” for Rindels’s story — that is, the title as it was presented to AP customers — was “Range Showdown-Racist Comments.” The “tendency” of the wire service, notes Colford, is to “let people speak for themselves. … It’s more striking to specify what Bundy said.” Indeed, all the news organizations mentioned here published the text of Bundy’s quotes; we’re simply focusing here on how they get described in the organizations’ editorial voice.
More from Colford: “[T]hough the word ‘racist’ didn’t end up in the final copy of the story you cite below, it may have appeared in earlier copy. Beyond the slug, there’s been no decision to avoid the word, so it’s possible that ‘racist’ could well appear in upcoming copy, as the story plays out.”
Calling a set of remarks “racist” pushes legacy media outlets — whose mandate centers on fairness to all — into editorial quicksand. Seeding news copy with such judgments invariably sets precedents. If you call Bundy’s remarks “racist,” that is, you hand readers an expectation that similar racist/not-racist judgments will appear in the news copy in future controversies. And since not all controversial remarks will be as clearly racist as Bundy’s, making such calls could well cripple a news outfit.
Refraining from “racist” categorization, however, carries its very own pitfalls. That is, calling Bundy’s remarks “racial” or “racially charged” or “incendiary” amounts to a journalistic gift for the Nevada rancher. Such euphemisms whitewash his appalling convictions and do a disservice to “incendiary” et alia, which should be reserved, perhaps, for provocative and less hateful commentary.
When the word fits, use it.