Fox News host Bill Hemmer played clips of assorted television hosts — Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Kate Bolduan of CNN — using the term “racist” to describe those tweets.
Those clips met with Kurtz’s condemnation. “There has been thunderous media condemnation of President Trump’s attacks on these four freshmen, as he knew there would be, as he actually wanted, in my view, because he gets the Democrats to defend the four freshmen and then he can argue they are siding with women who he calls ‘Socialists who hate America,’ ” said Kurtz. “Many, many outlets have just skipped the ‘Critics say’ part and they say ‘racist attacks,’ ‘racist tweets.’ I think a better approach is for journalists — and I’m not defending these tweets, by the way — is to lay it out but not say it’s racist because that goes to motive. You’re saying in his heart he is a racist.”
Stop right there.
Actually: Characterizing Trump’s tweets as “racist” entails no commentary or judgment about what lies in his heart. It’s merely a textual judgment. Trump targeted four women of color — all of them U.S. citizens, three of them born in the United States — and instructed them to “go back” to their miserable (and nonexistent) home countries. It was the same strain of racism that Trump expressed in January 2018 when he told lawmakers, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” (That outburst related to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, according to The Post’s Josh Dawsey.)
Far from expressing regrets for his tweets, Trump has claimed full ownership of them.
More Kurtz: “I prefer the way that John Roberts, our colleague, did it at the White House when he said to the president, ’Does it concern you that these tweets are seen as racist and being embraced by white nationalists?' … Look, it is close enough to the old go-back-to-Africa slurs that were hurled at black people for decades, that I understand their reasoning. But people are smart enough to make up their minds for themselves. Since the president denies any racist intent — and people can accept or dismiss that — it’s fine to say racially charged, incendiary, divisive. All those are fine. But I don’t think the media have to go so far as to say, ‘We don’t believe the president, we think it’s racist.’ "
Characterizing statements and positions is a core responsibility of journalists. Using plain language to do so is imperative. And the media does that all the time, only with less inflammatory terms: When a politician proposes substituting government-run programs for market programs, those are socialist ideas. When a candidate proposes cutting taxes and hoping that the benefits trickle down through social classes, those are supply-side ideas. When a candidate proposes a border wall and says Mexicans must pay for it, those are hard-line immigration ideas.
“Racist” means something; “racially charged” means nothing. Yes: “Racist” is a serious term, one of such towering condemnation that it should be deployed with care. The Post issued a statement about its own process:
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. 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.
No matter where you stand on this straightforward matter, one thing is for sure: The past four years have sharpened the skills of news organizations in evaluating racist statements, thanks to the frequency with which Trump utters them.