Some U.S. broadcasters require several days to determine that a facially racist piece of video is racist. That’s the lesson to be drawn from the most compelling pre-midterm media story in the United States.
As this blog noted way back on Nov. 1, President Trump on Halloween tweeted out a campaign video on immigration. Some news outlets called it “controversial” or “racially charged.” In fact, it was something more simple. “Trump shocks with racist new ad days before midterms,” noted CNN in its news coverage of the ad.
Turns out that the ad people at CNN concurred. Donald Trump Jr. complained in a tweet that the network had refused to run the ad:
CNN’s PR Twitter feed responded:
CNN — both on the editorial and ad side — was correct. The ad juxtaposes the crazed statements of an undocumented immigrant convicted of police killings against images of thousands of caravaners coming north through Mexico. “WHO ELSE WOULD DEMOCRATS LET IN?” asks a banner in the ad. The message: Those hordes of brown people from Central America — they’re killers. Be afraid of them.
Why was CNN uniquely able to discern this very obvious message? After profiting from its airing, two major players in U.S. media are bailing on the ad. NBC played the ad during Sunday night’s football game between the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, a decision that prompted outcries against the network.
“After further review, we recognize the insensitive nature of the ad and have decided to cease airing it across our properties as soon as possible,” said a statement from the network. Fox News issued its own, similar statement: “Upon further review, Fox News pulled the ad yesterday and it will not appear on either Fox News Channel or Fox Business Network,” Fox’s ad sales president Marianne Gambelli told CNN. Facebook’s about-face came with this statement: “This ad violates Facebook’s advertising policy against sensational content so we are rejecting it. While the video is allowed to be posted on Facebook, it cannot receive paid distribution.”
It’s tempting to credit these organizations for reaching the right decision. But such temptation should be resisted here. The flow of the ad itself — knitting together the horror of murder with images of Central American migrants — leaves little room for interpretation. It’s prima facie racism — worse, even, than the famous “Willie Horton” ad from George H.W. Bush’s presidential run in 1988. On this front, CNN continues to speak with clarity: “Facebook has stopped the Trump campaign from running its racist anti-immigration commercial as an ad on the site,” reads the lead sentence in its story on the social media giant’s approach to the backlash.
Another consideration is timing. When the Trump people launched the ad, the clear intent was to reach folks on the weekend before the midterms. These organizations assisted in that effort. NBC’s audience for the “Sunday Night Football” clash between two top National Football League teams fetched a generous 21 million viewers. The ad aired as well on MSNBC.
So these pullbacks come a bit late.
As the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani wrote last week, CNN did provide extensive editorial coverage of the ad, paired with appropriate denunciations of its content.
The aggressive racism in the ad places editors in a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose position. Ignore the ad, and leave the American public in the dark about the hateful things the president is doing in service of his political agenda. Cover the ad, and risk providing “earned media” to the president’s message. The only feasible approach is to cover it while citing the racism at its core.
Take a close look at the statements from the organizations that have now rejected the ad. NBC cited the ad’s “insensitive nature”; Facebook cited “sensational content,” as befits a tech titan; Fox News didn’t characterize the ad. As with all corporate statements, these examples are carefully lawyered, carefully PR’d. The companies aren’t calling the ad “racist,” even as they bail on it.
To do so would be to admit that they’ve profited from racism. Far preferable to profit from “sensational content.”