“How did we get here?” is a thoroughly stupid question that gets asked often in President Donald Trump’s America.
It’s been asked with particular frequency these past few weeks, what with Trump’s latest racist outlash and the failure of Congressional Republicans to condemn it. But what does “here” refer to, exactly?
An obvious answer is the presidency of Trump, who is so utterly unqualified and unfit for the office he holds that it requires no explanation here. Another is the spineless way in which Congressional Republicans have cowed to Trump’s worst impulses and indulged his most evil policies.
Another still is the bald-faced racism and violent bigotry displayed prominently at Charlottesville and at Trump rallies and everywhere else in America, where hate crimes are on the rise.
But it’s a dumb question, because it implies all of this is new or surprising — as if what is happening today has not been happening since the beginning, with America’s original sin of slavery and its persistent stain of racism.
Regardless, whatever the question refers to, its answer is multi-faceted and complex. In getting us here, there are many actors at fault, all with diverse methods and varied intentions.
But an uncomfortable pillar propping up this moment — a perhaps inadvertent but undeniable vehicle getting us “here” — is the news media. And this past week, it proved once again that it learned little from 2016, just in time for 2020.
As with all things, apparently, this most recent saga in American political theater starts with Trump, who just told four Congresswomen of color to go back where they “originally came from” in a series of racist tweets last week.
“Rather than describing his comments as racist … many publications decided it would be easier to bend over backwards and trip over their own inadequate descriptors to avoid doing so.”
Next, the news media rushed to cover the story as it unfolded — and it is indeed a story (as not all of Trump’s tweets are), for his words were reminiscent of America’s protracted history with violent intolerance. But what made it a story worth reporting was that this time, such racist attacks were delivered from the White House, accompanied by all the normalizing and legitimizing power that comes with such a bully pulpit.
Unfortunately, however, coverage of this incident has been lacking in context and conviction.
For starters, rather than describing his comments as racist — which the Associated Press stylebook demands that journalists do when the situation warrants it — many publications decided it would be easier to bend over backwards and trip over their own inadequate descriptors to avoid doing so.
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The New York Times described Trump’s comments as “racially infused” and as fanning the “flames of a racial fire.” In a Tweet, NBC News said the comments were just “denounced as racist” by others, rather than being inherently so. And Axios called them merely “nativist,” suggesting the battle was waged between immigrants and non-immigrants — failing to explicitly call out their racist motivations and implications.
But it didn’t stop there. In the days following the incident, CNN invited Richard Spencer, the face of modern white supremacy and the alt-right movement, onto their widely watched airwaves to discuss the incident, thus furthering the legitimization of the bigotry he espouses in national politics and discourse.
“All of these are old mistakes…Mistakes which have played a major role in normalizing and legitimizing bigotry, and which helped elect a president who embodies those vices.”
And just last week, before Trump left for a campaign rally in North Carolina — where the news media allowed chants of “send her back” (in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-MN) to play without challenge or interruption — he revived a disgusting conspiracy theory that the Minnesota representative was married to her brother.
As if on cue, the media rushed to report on those remarks without proper context, thus breathing life and legitimacy into a story that deserves neither. As a glaring example, the following is a full tweet from AP White House reporter Zeke Williams: “Trump on Rep. Omar before leaving White House: ‘There’s a lot of talk about the fact that she was married to her brother. I know nothing about it.’”
That’s it. That’s the Tweet.
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There is no mention of the claim’s falsity, no challenge of Trump’s statement that he doesn’t know “anything about it” mere seconds after saying it, no due consideration of the power the tweet holds coming from a reporter at a trusted source. If there was a verbal follow-up, it matters less now — this written record is what will enter the mainstream and live on past this news cycle’s inevitable expiration.
This, ultimately, is how narratives develop — how, as author Rebecca Solnit put it, “internet insinuation becomes campaign fact.” And the mainstream media is complicit in it.
This saga has even impacted local media, namely at the Wisconsin State Journal, which published a story about this racist president’s attacks on four duly elected Congresswomen of color with this headline in their print product: “President wants apologies.”
That headline makes this story about Trump and his demands for apologies from the women he attacked — not the women themselves, or the president’s racism, or anything worth the paper it’s printed on. The ultimate context provided later in the article itself is rendered less important, as the headline carries more agenda-setting power than the story it failed to encapsulate.
In a viral Facebook post, David Maraniss, a renowned author with roots in Madison, took issue with the “unwittingly ridiculous” headline, saying it played into Trump’s hands. The Journal responded, but the best they could muster was that deadlines and spacial limits exist, all while doubling down on their both sides-ism approach — even in covering issues of racism, where there really can’t exist two legitimate sides.
“Our national narratives dictate, perhaps without our full knowledge or awareness, how we think about quite literally everything. It seeps into our collective consciousness, writing this chapter of American history before it even concludes.”
All of these are old mistakes — mistakes made in 2016, and in every year before that. Mistakes which have played a major role in normalizing and legitimizing bigotry, and which helped elect a president who embodies those vices.
A healthy and broadly participatory democracy requires that the news media lend credence where credence is due, apply context where it is lacking and keep its feet firmly planted on the necks of those who would seek to use its normalizing power for their own malicious purposes.
That includes describing displays of racism as racist. Refusing to simply recite the lies of a proven liar without calling them lies or adding the necessary layer of contextual truth. Inviting only those worthy of such a powerful platform to shape it. Recognizing that both sides are not always deserving of equal time, equal consideration and equal respect — and rejecting the reductive notion that there exists just two sides to every story.
All of this is necessary to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election. But it ultimately expands beyond even that.
Our national narratives dictate, perhaps without our full knowledge or awareness, how we think about quite literally everything. It seeps into our collective consciousness, writing this chapter of American history before it even concludes.
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And when we consider that this power influences how we approach those different from us, and who we vote for, and the way we define electability, and how we delineate “American values” and who we believe to embody them — namely, how our history has been, is being and will be written — we should demand better from those who hold it.
I understand that it can be hard to approach this seemingly closed industry. But as someone who studies journalism, who cut my teeth as a student journalist and who now works in the wider world of mass communications, I also understand this to be desperately important and meaningful work.
So, I encourage everyone who wants to take some role in forming our cultural paradigms to do so. The avenues for engagement are many, and most journalists eagerly seek feedback and wider participation from their readers.
A good place to start is by sending a letter to the editor or writing an opinion column on a topic you’re passionate about. If you’re a student, joining your college paper is likely much easier than you think (and, I can say with confidence, an incredibly rewarding experience). Share your thoughts of news coverage on social media and in the comments section of a publication’s website. Demand better from and widen the perspective of those who have the awesome responsibility that accompanies agenda-setting powers.
And for newsrooms, this simply must include hiring more journalists of color and consulting a more diverse array of sources. To put it simply — the industry needs to show a responsive commitment and openness to change if any popular initiative is to have meaningful and lasting effect.
That, ultimately, is how the journalistic enterprise is made better — when we involve ourselves in the process, and when those with authority respond appropriately. So let us begin the work of writing a new chapter, one filled with diverse stories and responsible reporting and culturally competent narratives.
That is what this moment, and all the ones that follow it, require.
Matt O’Connor ([email protected]) is a senior studying political science and journalism.