Late Monday afternoon, I spoke with a colleague about the challenge of summarizing President Trump’s response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. On the one hand, Trump said in a speech that “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacism” — which is boilerplate but is also the kind of boilerplate he has often eschewed. On the other hand, he didn’t address the potential role of his own rhetoric — including his recent racist tweets — and at other points in his address he seemed to chalk up the whole thing up to mental illness.
What kind of headline could you even write for that? A few hours later, the New York Times showed how not to do it.
“TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM,” read the headline for the early editions of the Times’s print edition.
Democratic presidential candidates publicly derided it. And the Times changed it for future editions to “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS” (which still didn’t totally pacify critics).
So what was wrong with the original? Technically speaking, it was accurate. Trump did “urge unity vs. racism,” saying that the country must condemn racism and white supremacy “in one voice.” And that was, strictly speaking, news — especially given that Trump has repeatedly declined to offer similar condemnations after evil acts committed by racists (for a variety of potential reasons). The most infamous example is his blaming of “both sides” for what happened at a Charlottesville rally in 2017, where a white supremacist killed a counterprotester.
So, when Trump finally says something amounting to the right thing about apparent racist violence, why not play that up? One problem is that he was clearing a very low bar that he set himself. The other is that the rest of his comments suggested that racism was merely a byproduct, rather than the root cause, of the violence.
For any other president, condemning racism would be a matter of course following the mass killing of Hispanics by a shooter who apparently believed immigrants were invading the country. It wouldn’t be huge news, because you’d fully expect a president say it. The potential rise of racism in the United States may be the big story, but a president condemning it would not be.
There’s something to be said for noting Trump’s change in rhetoric, but you also need to consider the context. And that context is the bigger point. The fact is that the rest of Trump’s comments suggested this was more about mental illness than racism.
"If you look at both of these cases, this is mental illness,” he said Sunday. “These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”
Even in his speech Monday, he suggested that racism was something that the allegedly mentally ill shooter latched on to. “We must recognize that the Internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” he said.
Joe Biden hit on this incongruency Monday night on CNN. “White nationalism is wrong," he said. "It is not a mental illness. It is hateful behavior.”
Trump’s speech dwelt upon potential solutions, including for dealing with mental illness, social media and violent video games. He did not specifically mention how we combat racism, apart from saying we must condemn it and look at places where it is fertilized. He did not address that the alleged El Paso shooter’s apparent manifesto contained similarities to his own rhetoric.
And there’s a good reason for that. Regardless of whether you think Trump is racist or has said racist things — The Washington Post considers his recent “go back” tweets racist — he has at the very least toyed with the tools of racial and cultural resentment. He has repeatedly warned of an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants and called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, among many other examples. If you play with those tools, there is a chance that people will get very bad ideas. On the same day Trump was speaking, Cesar Sayoc, a man who sent mail bombs to several of Trump’s top critics, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
One of Trump’s political skills is saying a whole bunch of things that allow people to take away what they want to. Often, these things are utterly contradictory. And when the media notes those contradictions or focuses on what Trump’s supporters think are the wrong things, both they and Trump claim persecution. If it’s not a concerted strategy, it may as well be.
The bad headline was written for a good story that contained all that nuance. Of course, capturing so much context in a small allotted space is no easy feat for the editors tasked with doing this, as my colleague Laura Michalski laid out on Twitter after the initial uproar over the headline.
But it’s up to the media to sift through all the noise and distill what Trump is really saying. Summarizing that in five words is extremely difficult, but it’s also extremely important.