Wasting untold time and energy, New York Times newsroom leaders continue to struggle with the not-very-difficult question of whether they ought to refer to Donald Trump as a racist. More than four years after Trump entered our national political conversation by announcing his candidacy for president, the Times still can’t figure out if the paper should accurately label him for his obviously racist behavior.
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.
Top editors at the Times recently sent a memo to department heads offering guidance on the topic. “It’s about navigating through calling things what they are, not getting into the kind of name-calling that seems to pervade political debate,” one anonymous Times editor told Vanity Fair. “That’s a little bit of the tension. We’re in a real name-calling culture. We like to stay above the fray, yet we also like to avoid excessive euphemisms, so the attempt here is to say: Let’s not use labels so much as to describe things as they are.”
This came after Times executive editor Dean Baquet last week stressed that the paper just can’t tell if Trump’s a racist. “I don’t know. I think Donald Trump says racially divisive things. I think that’s a little bit different. I’m not in his head enough to know whether he says them because he wants to stoke his base,” the editor told The Guardian.
Note that that’s the same illogical defense the paper uses for not calling Trump a liar: Reporters and editors aren’t in his head, so they can’t tell for sure. But it’s been documented that Trump has told certain lies more than 60-70 different times, which means there’s zero doubt that he knows he’s telling boldfaced lies. Still, the confused Times just can’t make a tough call. Just like the paper can’t make a tough call on Trump’s misogyny.
There’s “no question Donald Trump has trouble with women,” according to Baquet, who nonetheless oversees a newspaper that won’t call him a sexist in its news pages.
That mind-reading defense is a convenient cop-out for the Times. But other publications and news agencies aren’t as reserved.
Note that the Associated Press assures journalists that they don’t have to be telepathic in order to be accurate. 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.”
Also, does it seem to you like Times editors are slow-walking this issue in hopes of playing out the clock? Trump entered the Republican race in June 2015. It’s now November 2019, and Times higher-ups are still grappling with this topic. Why do I get the feeling that right after Trump loses reelection next year, the paper is going to announce it’s now comfortable tagging him as a racist? Not exactly a profile in courage.
To be fair, the Times is hardly alone in its timid approach to describing racist behavior in the Trump era. Instead of an honest conversation, news consumers have been served a feast of euphemisms — “racially tinged,” “racially charged,” racially incendiary, disparaging,” “racially infused,” “crass epithet,” “crass denigrations,” “bluntly vulgar language”—as journalists frantically try to avoid being truthful about Trump. This kind of media timidity was basically invented by the Beltway press in order to cover Trump, and to avoid telling hard truths.
Time essayist Anand Giridharadas recently revealed how in 2016 when writing a piece on Trump’s name-calling campaign, an editor forced him to remove the accurate “racist” adjective from his piece. “Of all the biases that assist this normalizing, perhaps the supreme is the bias for sobriety, caution, restraint,” Giridharadas lamented on Twitter. “These values build great publications. But we also need to have an honest conversation about what these values miss when we are living in extraordinary, ugly times.”
HuffPost writer Julia Craven collected a wide sample of examples of reporters burning up their thesauruses in order to avoid typing the word “racist.” From The New York Times: “disparaging,” ”racially tinged,” ”vulgar.” From The Washington Post: ”racially charged,” “crude reference,” “racially incendiary,” ”disparaging,” ”vulgar,” ”expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway.” From the Boston Globe: “the vulgarity,” ”crass epithet,” ”derogatory,” ”crass denigrations.” And from the Associated Press: ”bluntly vulgar language.”
Still, it’s rather stunning to watch the Times’ best and brightest treat this so-called conundrum like it’s some impossible-to-solve physics equation, as editors gather around and try to determine the correct answer.
Fact: Trump is a racist. He constantly uses racist language, such as demanding that congresswomen of color “go back” to where they came from, and likens predominantly black American cities to rodent-infested hellholes. Recall that the bloody gun rampage that unfolded in El Paso earlier this year, just minutes from the Mexico border, was sparked by a white gunman whose manifesto explicitly cited Trump’s “invasion” rhetoric about migrants as his motivation to kill as many brown-skinned people as possible by emptying his AK-47 rifle inside a shell-shocked Walmart.
So why the ongoing attempt to make this all way more complicated than it really is? Calling out racism is a moral imperative and by refusing to hold Trump accountable, the press is failing that task.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.