If something is racist, say so.
For newsrooms, that’s the simple yet dramatic new guidance from the Associated Press. The recommendation arrives via new changes to the all-important AP Stylebook, the longtime industry bible for newsrooms across the country. For decades, editors from news organizations in the States and around the world have viewed the manual as the final arbiter on language.
The AP update is significant, as it urges editors, producers, and reporters to walk away from the hollow, mushy euphemisms like “racially-motivated,” “racially incendiary,” and “racially-tinged”—phrases that are often employed in place of plainspoken terms, such as “racist.” That’s especially true in political coverage, and Trump coverage in particular, as journalists almost uniformly refuse to use the “r” word to describe Trump’s comments and behavior, even though he keeps advertising his racist ways. Likely terrified of sparking a right-wing media backlash, journalists continue to tiptoe around Trump’s open embrace of hate speech and his deeply racist leanings.
The frank language would certainly cause loud consternation among white conservatives, who today produce great theater when they’re rightfully called out for racist behavior, and then use the adjective as a prompt to loudly play the victim. And that might be why journalists beg off tagging conservative behavior as racists, even when the description is often too clearly accurate.
Instead, euphemisms have become a plague on newsrooms during the Trump era, signaling that journalists are too afraid to speak truthfully about the increasing amount of racist behavior on display among politicians.
Last year, HuffPost Julia Craven collected a wide sample of examples of reporters burning up their thesauruses in order to avoid typing the word “racist.”
Washington Post: ”racially charged,” “crude reference,” “racially incendiary,” ”disparaging,” ”vulgar,” ”expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway.”
The Associated Press: ”bluntly vulgar language,” “accused of racism,” ”the most controversial of his remarks: using the word ’shithole,’” “contemptuous blanket description,” “charges that the president is racist.”
Those examples have only piled up since 2018, as Trump’s behavior has become even more racist. The AP is careful to suggest that journalists should still avoid calling out individuals as racists, noting, “It’s far harder to match the complexity of a person to a definition or label than it is a statement or action.” But when it comes to actions and comments, journalists should not shy away from the truth.
Additionally, the AP assures journalists that they don’t have to be in the mind-reading business. In other words, when using “racist” as an adjective to describe comments or events, reporters and editors “need not involve examining the motivation of the person who spoke or acted, which is a separate issue that may not be related to how the statement or action itself can be characterized.”
The AP’s style update, urging journalists to be more forthright, comes just weeks after Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen testified before Congress about his bosses’ often racist behavior. “While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way,” Cohen told members of Congress. “And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”
Cohen’s examples join a long and ugly list of Trump racist commentary. “Laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that,” Trump once told the head of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino. Meeting with lawmakers last year, Trump demanded to know, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” referring to African nations, as well as Haiti and El Salvador. Lashing out at one of his few black aides, Trump insulted Omarosa Manigault-Newman by calling her a “dog” and a “crazed, crying lowlife.” And he famously suggested there were “fine people on both sides” after white nationalist Nazi sympathizers faced off with counter-protesters in the deadly 2017 events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
During the 2016 campaign, when Trump smeared a U.S.-born judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit, claiming he couldn’t be impartial because he had Mexican heritage, even then-Speaker of the House, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, denounced the comments as “the textbook definition” of racism.
I realize that a Beltway press corps—which often won’t even label Trump a “liar” today, even though he’s already lied more than 9,000 times since being sworn into the Oval Office—probably won’t rush to embrace the AP’s guidance when it comes to Trump.
That’s because simple truth telling remains one of the biggest self-imposed obstacles for the press in this age of Trump. He doesn’t act like any previous president, and Trump remains a deeply hateful man who lies constantly and spews racist rhetoric. The fundamentals of journalism demand that the press report all of that, without fear or favor. But the truth is, lots of journalists are afraid to. So too often, they dance around the ugliness on display and pretend that Trump’s behavior and comments aren’t racist.
Yet they are. And the new AP Stylebook changes, by urging newsrooms to be more forthright about labeling racists comments in the news, mean that journalists have one less excuse for not calling Trump out.