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‘Racist’ tweets? News media grapple with how to label Trump’s latest attacks

President Trump speaks during a Made in America products showcase on the South Lawn of the White House Monday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

When is it time to call a statement “racist,” and when is it time to let others characterize it that way?

News organizations wrestled with that question Sunday and Monday after President Trump tweeted a series of statements aimed at four members of Congress, all women of color. Trump’s comments — “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” — drew a thunderously negative reaction, with many people, especially Democrats, calling the tweets straight-up racist.

But not everyone in the mainstream media was so direct.

Reflecting a reluctance to use an incendiary term to describe Trump’s motives and behavior, some tiptoed around the word in their initial reports. Others stepped closer to the line, relying on phrases best described as “racist-adjacent,” such as “racially loaded,” “racially tinged” and “racially charged.”

On ABC News’s “World News Tonight” on Sunday, anchor Tom Llamas attributed the word to others: “Tweets critics are calling racist,” he reported, adding later that Trump is “being called racist.” The on-screen banner came closer to a flat declaration: “Racially charged tweet.” By Monday morning, “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos was more explicit, introducing a news story by referring to “a series of racist tweeting” by the president.

On “CBS Weekend News,” reporter Errol Barnett also sidestepped the issue, saying that Trump “stepped up his attacks on Democratic women.” He came closest by quoting a tweet by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saying that “ ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again.” By Monday morning, “CBS This Morning” referred to them as “racially charged” tweets.

Fox News’s anchors and reporters avoided adopting the word throughout the day on Monday. In a midmorning report, anchor Bill Hemmer said Democrats were slamming “what they call racist comments.” He introduced White House correspondent John Roberts, who said the tweets were “drawing cries of racism.”

During a brief presidential news conference Monday morning, Roberts told Trump that “many people saw the tweets as racist.” But neither Roberts nor Hemmer called it that themselves.

CNN, meanwhile, wasn’t so shy: Its hosts and on-screen graphics, known as chyrons, used the term as casually as if calling the summer weather “hot.” One on Monday afternoon put it bluntly: “Trump defends his racist attacks on U.S. congresswomen.” Another said, “GOP lawmakers mostly silent on Trump’s racist attack.”

News organizations often debate how to describe controversial actions or statements in the most neutral way possible in an attempt to be evenhanded. During George W. Bush’s presidency, for example, newsrooms were divided over the use of the word “torture” to describe the administration’s tactics in interrogating terrorism suspects. More recently, the question has involved references to people who crossed international borders without authorization. Should they be called “undocumented workers,” “illegal aliens,” “migrants” or something else?

The use of “racist” in Trump’s case is similar to journalists’ reluctance to call him a “liar” or his many false statements “lies.” However, as the number of such statements has grown to five figures, some news organizations have dropped the euphemisms (“falsehood,” “misleading,” “baseless,” etc.) and now brand his repeatedly false utterances as “lies.”

Arizona State journalism professor Dan Gillmor said news organizations are guilty of “weasel wording” when they avoid characterizing the president’s tweets as anything but racism. “My favorite [phrase], in a grind-your-teeth sense, is ‘racially tinged,’ ” which he called “visibly timid.” Gillmor, in an email, added, “It demonstrates journalistic weakness at a time when we need news organizations to be undaunted by the escalating attacks on the craft.”

It’s unlikely that readers or viewers will miss the implications of news reports that refer to such controversies obliquely. But the issue may be credibility and trust: Many people, particularly people of color, have long harbored the suspicion that the news media underplay stories about race and racism.

The Washington Post initially avoided any direct characterization of the tweets, sticking to the reaction of others, in its news story about it Monday. However, later in the day, it began using the direct, unvarnished label.

“The Post traditionally has been cautious in the terminology it uses to characterize individuals’ statements, because a news organization’s job is to inform its readers as dispassionately as possible,” Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a statement. “Decisions about the terminology we use are made only after a thorough discussion among senior editors. We had that discussion today about President Trump’s use of a longstanding slur against African Americans and other minorities. The ‘go back’ trope is deeply rooted in the history of racism in the United States. Therefore, we have concluded that ‘racist’ is the proper term to apply to the language he used Sunday.”

Few news organizations have written policies about when the word can or should be applied.

The most nuanced policy may be the Associated Press’s, whose stylebook entry on race-related coverage says, “Reporting and writing about issues involving race calls for thoughtful consideration, precise language, and an openness to discussions with others of diverse backgrounds about how to frame coverage or what language is most appropriate, accurate and fair. Avoid broad generalizations and labels.”

In this case, the AP had no qualms about how to refer to the tweet controversy. The headline on its main story on Monday read, “ ‘Many people agree with me’: Trump digs in on racist tweets.” It also tweeted, “President Trump, unbowed by criticism of his racist tweets targeting Democratic congresswomen, says ‘If you’re not happy here, then you can leave.’ ”

In its main news story on the issue on Monday, the New York Times avoided adopting the phrase of its own accord and stuck with a less direct construction — that the tweets were “widely seen as racist.”