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Why Richard Engel’s condemnation of Donald Trump is a big moment

This undated photo provided by NBC News shows Richard Engel at the end of a reporting trip in Syria in July 2012. (NBC News via AP)
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Pundits, tabloids and bloggers have had Donald Trump on blast for quite some time now. But whether the Republican presidential front-runner likes to admit it or not ("absolute scum" was how he described the media during a rally in South Carolina on Monday night), many journalists have been working very hard to remain neutral when covering him.

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel belongs in that camp, yet even he is shaking his head publicly after Trump's call for the United States to block all Muslims from entering the country.

"This is really not the country that I know," he said on MSNBC on Monday night. He continued:

This is not small ball, actually. This matters. It would be interesting to say, "Oh, this is just fun. This is just more, you know, he's trying to score a few points." But the world watches this. The world sees the leading political candidate from one party making these kind of statements and still doing well and having these rallies. ... Those are going around the world right now, and people realize this person is leading in the polls. That must be what Americans think. I was today with an ambassador from the Middle East. Today. And we were talking exactly about this subject. And he said, "Well, people in our country watch what is going on, and it makes us very concerned." So from the world perspective, it is absolutely an image, an impression, a black spot on our collective foreign policy and our conscience. And it also just feeds into the ISIS [Islamic State] narrative.

Now, to be clear, this wasn't pure opinion from Engel. When he characterized Trump's rhetoric as "a black spot," for instance, he was essentially relaying a sentiment from others — people like the ambassador he cited. That's reporting — or, perhaps, informed analysis — and not your typical talking-head pontificating.

And yet, Engel's own feelings showed in his obvious dismay at what he's hearing.

Engel represents something bigger here — the fact that the press is at a crossroads in its coverage of Trump's campaign. Some news outlets, such as the left-leaning Huffington Post, made the decision long ago to treat the real estate titan's candidacy as a sham. As Trump has remained steadily atop the polls, however, many have tried to treat him with the seriousness and respect typically befitting a leading White House contender.

It's getting harder and harder to keep doing that. And we're seeing journalists and major news organizations getting bolder in their challenges to Trump and his policies. In another prominent example, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough — a rare conservative over there — took an unscheduled commercial break to shut Trump up Tuesday morning.

Trump's poll numbers suggest that he speaks for a not-insignificant chunk of the electorate; that alone means he should be handled like a viable presidential candidate. But even the most professional journalists have consciences, too. It looks to me like we'll be hearing from their little shoulder angels more often.

Here's what Donald Trump has said about Muslims since 2011. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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