The 167-year-old, buttoned-down wire service has traditionally tread with great care when it comes to words. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, Reuters declined to use the term “terrorist.” (“We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist. . . . To be frank, it adds little to call the attack on the World Trade Center a terrorist attack,” noted an internal Reuters memo at the time.)
It’s no surprise, then, that Reuters has avoided calling Trump’s attacks “racist” in its own editorial voice, unlike The Post, CNN, the Associated Press and others. The material at issue stems from a series of Trump tweets from July 14, when he went after Democratic lawmakers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.):
So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly ... and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run . . . Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how . . . it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!
Enduring pleas to “go back” to some other country is a frequent experience for people of color in the United States, as many have made clear in the week or so since Trump’s attacks. Even the most die-hard Trump supporters, when confronted with the horror of the language, steer clear of addressing it on its own merits, preferring to comment on the president’s political acumen or the lawmakers’ history of criticizing the United States.
The headline on another July 16 Reuters story hints at the options available to editors when they shy away from reality: “Republican support for Trump rises after racially charged tweets: Reuters/Ipsos poll.” That story also featured the quotation marks:
The results showed strong Republican backing for Trump as the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution on Tuesday, largely along party lines, to condemn him for “racist comments” against the four Democratic lawmakers.
The formulations have prompted a “brawl” within Reuters over how to handle the matter, with a masthead edict not to use “racist” in the Reuters voice, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings. Email guidance issued last week took a skeptical view of the euphemistic workarounds: “Racially charged” was a vague approach, it said, and the quotations around “racist comments” could be seen by readers as dismissive editorializing. Accordingly, the wire service settled on “widely criticized as racist” — not a far cry from how the New York Times has phrased it: “widely viewed as racist.” The Reuters email discouraged forwarding because the company wants to keep this discussion out of the public.
No need to be so secretive, Reuters: The Trump era presents many challenges that news organizations haven’t faced in modern memory. Let the sun shine on these deliberations! After all, what could be more embarrassing than putting the term “racially charged” in a headline to describe objectively racist remarks? Reuters’s troubles highlight the realities of deploying adjectives: Doing so always triggers some level of judgment, deduction and analysis. Don’t abandon that exercise just because its outcome speaks ill of the president of the United States.
Asked about the internal discussions, a Reuters spokesperson issued this statement: “As a global news organization operating independently in 166 countries, Reuters is committed to sharing accurate, unbiased information upon which people can make the most informed, intelligent decisions. Our coverage is providing all the information, background and context to enable users to determine for themselves whether President Trump’s recent tweets were racist.”
Correction: A previous version of this post cited a “mystery” regarding the provenance of quotation marks. They come from the House resolution, as the current version points out.