The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media must do better

President Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House last week. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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After the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, President Trump is already is blaming the media (“News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”) and threatening to hold gun safety legislation hostage to “immigration reform” — the bipartisan variety of which he has worked to defeat.

Responsible coverage would mean beginning every story and every news segment with a reminder that Trump before the two recent shootings never condemned white nationalism and, in fact, consistently has abetted it. It would explain that Trump has virulently opposed all bipartisan efforts at immigration reform and together with his party has blocked background checks.

Imagine if President Barack Obama had rhetorically amplified radical Islamist fundamentalism, accepted support from its adherents, remained sequestered 24 hours after two terrorist attacks, blamed the media and disingenuously suggested anti-terrorism measures be married, say, to a hike in the minimum wage or another Democratic demand. The media would have questioned his mental stability, gone nuts over his refusal to appear publicly and hounded members of his party to disown him, if not seek his removal from office.

What’s wrong with current coverage? The media don’t treat Trump as they would Obama; they don’t treat domestic white nationalist terrorism like “real” terrorism, and they don’t treat Republicans as responsible for this president’s moral insanity.

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Beto O’Rourke had it right when he lambasted the media for essentially playing dumb, for asking without context questions for which “they know the answers to” (language warning):

When the media ask questions as if we have a normal president, as if Trump isn’t himself the purveyor of the ideology that motivates mass murderers and as if he hasn’t been hiding out at his golf course for more than a day after the El Paso terrorist massacre, they enable him to maintain the patina of respectability and his followers to support him while disassociating themselves from the white nationalism he foments.

The mainstream media need to rethink practices such as:

  • Putting on air inveterate liars such as Kellyanne Conway
  • Carrying any Trump rally live, given the high likelihood that he will be inciting anti-immigrant hysteria
  • Questioning Republican lawmakers without insisting that they account for the president’s conduct
  • Using benign headlines (“Trump wants action on gun safety”) to obscure Trump’s complicity (e.g. blocking gun control)
  • Allowing Trump’s past offenses to be lost down the memory hole (e.g., Trump began his campaign saying, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”)
  • Ignoring Fox News’s role in stoking anti-immigrant hate.

Trump and his apologists will accuse the media of “taking sides.” But when one side is routinely lying as well as aiding and abetting white nationalism, you bet the media should take sides. A simple example: When Trump says he is the “least racist” person, he should be pummeled with questions about everything from his refusal to recognize that the Central Park Five were exonerated to his use of dehumanizing language (“infested”) to his insistence there were “very fine” people among the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville to his repeated attacks on African Americans’ intelligence. Print stories recounting his words (“Trump ignores his racist track record” not “Trump says he’s the least racist person”) should recount his record of racism.

False balance and moral squeamishness on the part of the media are malpractice. Trump depends on cowed Republicans and an overly solicitous media to maintain his hold on power. End both, and we’d go a long way toward ridding ourselves of this moral and political menace.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: How Trump’s biggest broken promise will make white supremacist terrorism even worse

Max Boot: Trump is leading our country to destruction

Jennifer Rubin: There is no excuse for supporting this president

Juliette Kayyem: There are no lone wolves

Ross Ramsey: Mass shootings appall Texas politicians. So do the solutions.

Ann Telnaes cartoon: Mitch McConnell and his hold on gun control