The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The words Trump uses, and the words the media must use in response

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media after the Congressional Republican Leadership retreat at Camp David, Maryland, U.S., January 6, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

From Harry Truman's "dumb son of a b----" assessment of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Richard B. Cheney's rude suggestion about what Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) should do to himself, foul language from politicians skips across the aisle and leaps through the decades.

President Trump and his administration, though, have added a turbocharge.

Who can forget Anthony Scaramucci's description of Stephen K. Bannon's ability to give himself sexual pleasure through contortion? Or Trump's own bragging about sexual misconduct that surfaced during the campaign?

Despite all this, the profanity used by the president to describe poor countries — "shithole," to be precise — still managed to shock. And news organizations had to grapple with whether and how prominently to use his words.

But the real issue wasn't the language at all, disgusting as it was.

What mattered much more was what Trump's words really meant, and what the responsibilities of journalists were in conveying that meaning in some sensible way.

In the first hours of coverage, some rose to the challenge well.

Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times provided meaningful context in her immediate news story: "While cruder and blunter than his past public statements, the president's comments were in keeping with his long-standing position that the United States should shift its immigration policy away from poorer, developing countries, and instead focus on carefully selecting educated immigrants, especially from Europe."

She added that Trump "has frequently characterized Muslims as terrorists and opened his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants 'rapists.' "

By evening, some cable newscasters had become far more blunt. Don Lemon of CNN flatly declared: "The president of the United States is racist." His colleague Anderson Cooper went there, too: Trump's words were not just "racially charged" but simply racist.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times quickly wrote a ­well-argued opinion piece, "Just Say It: Trump Is a Racist."

Predictably, though, Trump's regular media defenders were responding in two appalling ways.

First, they did it by noting that countries like Haiti are indeed poor and troubled, implying that the president was therefore right to disparage them.

Fox's Tomi Lahren, never deeper than a coffee saucer, put it this way: "If they aren't shithole countries, why don't their citizens stay there? Let's be honest. Call it like it is." (Her tweet prompted Washington Post Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff to aptly note that nearly 9 million Americans live overseas, and CNN's Andrew Kaczynski to wonder, "Why do you live/work in California/NYC instead of your native South Dakota?")

And second, they did it by positing that Trump's racism will play well with his base, which somehow makes it acceptable. Jesse Watters, a Fox host, paid tribute to what he called America's "forgotten men and women" who surely would approve. (Big eyeroll here: Anyone who'd like to forget these hardcore fans would find it impossible, given the media's endless explorations of their Trumpian fealty.)

It all made for a tremendous uproar, one sure to be swept aside as the next horror show replaces it.

Can we learn anything from this one? Maybe.

Most news organizations handled the use of a profane word with professionalism: If the president says it, it's news. They used it, mostly verbatim or in some thinly veiled form.

Fewer, though, were successful at getting beyond the shock value of the word and exploring the racist — yes, racist — thinking behind it.

Should the news media be using that charged word for the president of the United States? Only when absolutely warranted. Which it clearly is.

A similar debate raged last year about whether to use the word "lie" in describing Trump's constant falsehoods. Again, it's not a word one wants to use lightly, but one that is sometimes necessary.

And it's one that is not limited to the president. Consider the Republican senators who said they couldn't remember whether they heard Trump use his atrocious words in the meeting they attended, or denied he said them. If they weren't lying, what other explanation might there be?

This is the kind of "call it like it is" that's needed. I didn't notice much of it.

And improvement is desperately needed on another media front, too.

Somehow, the familiar cycle of freakout — shock-reaction-insult-rejoinder — has to stop.

Those reporters who provided useful context within news stories helped right away.

And those commentators and opinion writers who made logical, principled arguments did, too. But that kind of thoughtfulness was far from universal.

Context, clarity, reason? We need much more of this.

Excusing racism on political grounds? Justifying the disparagement of people because their countries are troubled? Making cynical arguments to encourage their audience's worst instincts?

Media figures who do that — and there are far too many of them — dump buckets of kerosene on the flames.

To use House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wis.) weak word of dissent, that's unhelpful. Calling it like it is: It's vile.

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