The media assume too much. They assume the public knows Booker is African American. They assume the public knows Trump’s real estate company was sued in the 1970s for alleged housing discrimination. They assume that Americans understand “low-income” is a favorite code-word for Black or Hispanic. This is a mistake, both because many Americans do not know these things and because it allows the Republican attack machine to escape accountability.
Trump seems to have lost all sense of subtlety after Harris’s impressive and poised performance on Wednesday. He told a Fox Business news interviewer on Thursday: “She was so angry, such hatred with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh. I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group, and they were all angry.” On Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he said the New York Democrat “goes out and yaps,” reducing her to the status of a dog. He lied in calling her “a poor student”; she double-majored in international relations and economics, graduating cum laude in 2011 from Boston University. (Unlike Trump, her parents did not pull strings to get her into college.) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is “stone-cold crazy" and “Morning Joe’s” Mika Brzezinski is the “ditzy airhead wife” of co-host Joe Scarborough. All of his targets are women; he invariably demeans their intellect and temperament.
When reporting on Trump calling Harris “nasty” or “angry,” it is critical for the account to explain that these are common insults Trump throws at women, meant to deprive them of respect, status and power. It is meant to reinforce the stereotype that women must be docile, respectful and pleasing to men. The put-downs are especially egregious in connection with women of color, who for decades were relegated to domestic and service jobs and expected to be non-confrontational. In short, spell it out. This is a moment for education, insight and accountability in which the media must play their part.
CNN did precisely this on Wednesday when reporting on Trump’s “nasty” slur: “The insults all played into racist and sexist stereotypes about Black women and made clear that Trump does not intend to throw away a playbook filled with misogynistic attacks and dog-whistle racism that have imbued his political career, even as the Biden campaign advances a barrier-breaking ticket.”
Moreover, it is critical to explain this is part of a pattern for Trump. As CNN reported:
He has told Black reporters who are women that they are asking "stupid" questions, described their queries as "racist," and called one a "loser." He has repeatedly labeled Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, as "low IQ" and attacked his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as "that dog" and a "crazed, crying lowlife."And as racial tensions increased this summer after the murders of unarmed Black Americans, Trump went after Washington, DC, Mayor [Muriel] Bowser, claiming she was constantly asking the federal government for “handouts” while mismanaging the nation’s capital.Trump did nothing to project a message of racial reconciliation amid the protests; instead, he dug into a “law and order” message that relied heavily on racist themes, including a defense of Confederate statues and the Confederate flag and a reliance on language that harkened to the Civil Rights era.
Still, that is not sufficient. It is critical when interviewing other Republicans to press them to condemn Trump’s comments. Do not let them wave off the queries or move to other topics. Ask them if their silence should be taken as approval. Ask them how they can support a president who swims in a sea of bigotry. Do not, of course, merely ask men. Women in the party, too, provide cover for an abusive, predatory president when they look the other way or suggest he is pleasant to them so he cannot possibly be sexist. (A common excuse for abusive male personalities is to provide lists of women who praise them, as if proof that respect for certain women absolves them of sexism in treatment of other women who they think are not positioned to complain.)
One final issue: Trump’s Cabinet is overwhelmingly White and male. He has never appointed a woman or person of color to the top Cabinet roles of attorney general, defense secretary, secretary of state, treasury secretary or national security adviser. The acting secretaries Trump has hired and kept in place for a significant time period without Senate confirmation (e.g., Patrick Shanahan at the Defense Department, Matthew Whitaker at the Justice Department, Richard Grenell for director of national intelligence, Kevin McAleenan and Chad Wolf at Homeland Security) have been almost all White men. Nevertheless, the White House press corps does not ask Trump about the lack of diversity in his administration or in his court nominations, of whom 85 percent are White and just 25 percent female. (A piece in USA Today notes: “The racial breakdown of Trump’s nominees speaks for itself. None of his 53 confirmed appeals court judges is Black. Not a single one. That makes Donald Trump the first president since Richard Nixon to go a full first term without selecting a Black nominee for a federal appeals court.”)
Trump is making White men more and more dominant in two branches of government. He needs to be held to account for that, just as his racist and sexist rhetoric must be decoded and contextualized for news consumers.
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