As you’ve probably heard by now, Donald Trump had quite a weekend. First he claimed on Saturday that “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as [the World Trade Center] was coming down.” Confronted with the fact that this is completely false, Trump insisted on Sunday, “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations…that tells you something.”
Then on Sunday he (or someone from his campaign) tweeted out a graphic with phony statistics purporting to show how murderous black people are (and illustrated with a picture of a young black man with a bandana over his face, pointing a gun sideways, gangster-style).
Both of these happenings are receiving plenty of attention in the media today. The problem is that the media doesn’t know how to handle this kind of blatant race-baiting from a leading politician.
And just to be clear, it is race-baiting, and nothing else. In neither case is there even the remotest connection to some kind of legitimate policy question. When Trump says falsely that thousands of people in Jersey City (which has a large Muslim population) were celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center, he isn’t making an argument about Syrian refugees. He’s simply saying that you should hate and fear Muslim Americans. When he tries to convince people that most white murder victims are killed by black thugs (again, false), he isn’t arguing for some policy approach. He’s just trying to foment racism and convince racists that he’s their guy.
So how do the media deal with this? One thing they don’t do is call it by its name. The first approach is to report on it as just another campaign controversy (“Trump takes heat for tweet about black murder rates“). That kind of story sticks to the who-what-where-when approach: Trump tweeted this, he was criticized for it, here’s how it was inaccurate, here’s Trump’s response. Any value judgments that appear will be spoken by Trump’s critics (though not his primary opponents, who for the most part are dancing around any criticism of what Trump said).
The second approach the media takes is to address Trump’s comments through fact-checking, something we have gotten pretty good at. Interestingly enough, fact-checking as a formal genre of journalism can be traced to another campaign that prominently featured Republican race-baiting, the 1988 election. In the wake of that election, many news outlets felt they had been manipulated by George H.W. Bush’s campaign into not only focusing on distracting issues that had little or nothing to do with the presidency, but also into becoming a conduit for ugly attacks with little basis in fact. Over the following few years, many decided to institutionalize fact-checks, at first for television ads in particular, and later for all kinds of claims made in politics. Eventually sites like Politifact and FactCheck.org were created, and major news organizations like this one devoted staff solely to fact-checking.
In the process, journalists acquired both an understanding of how to separate the accurate from the inaccurate from the subjective, and a language to talk about different kinds of claims. While there’s plenty of slippage — you still see claims that have been proven false referred to as “controversial” or “questionable” — the existence of the fact-checking enterprise has allowed reporters to be clearer with their audiences about what is and isn’t true.
So if you want a fact-check of Trump’s claims, you’ll have no trouble finding it (here’s the Post’s). What you’ll have to look harder for is reporting that puts what Trump said in a context that goes much deeper than the campaign controversy of the week.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that there’s a simple template reporters should follow, one that will allow them to easily separate the merely “controversial” from the clearly racist (though wherever the line is, passing on phony statistics about murderous black people from neo-Nazis is definitely on the other side of it). But they wouldn’t violate any reasonable conception of objectivity by making the nature of Trump’s arguments clear.
When David Duke nearly won the governorship of Louisiana in 1991, it was reported in the national media as a story about racism, with a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan garnering a majority of the white vote as he lost a runoff election. Few in the media hesitated to call Duke a racist, in large part because even at the time he was perceived as representing yesterday’s racism, antiquated for its explicitness (even if Duke did try to clean up his views for the campaign).
Trump represents one face of today’s racism (though not by any means the only face). It simultaneously insists that Muslims can be good Americans, and accuses them of hating America and says their places of worship ought to be kept under government surveillance. It says that some Mexican-Americans are good people, and says most of them are rapists and drug dealers. It says “I think I’ll win the African-American vote” and then tries to convince voters that black people are murdering white people everywhere. In every case, Trump proclaims that he’s no racist while tapping into longstanding racist stereotypes and narratives of the alleged threat posed by minorities to white people.
Since I can’t read minds, I don’t know whether Donald Trump is a racist deep in his heart. But he is without question making himself into the racist’s candidate for president. And that’s a subject the media needs to explore in more depth.