In the spirit of maintaining journalistic “objectivity”, the US media dangerously asks equivocating questions that put blatant racism & white supremacy “up for debate”.
[8/5/19: Reporter asking 2020 Presidential Candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke on his thoughts after last Saturday’s mass shooting attack in his hometown of El Paso, Texas]:
Reporter: Is there anything in your mind that the President can do now to make this any better?
O’Rourke: Uh…what do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Like, members of the press: what the fuck? You know…I….its these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s *promoting* racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s *inciting* racism and violence. So, um, you know, I just don’t know what kind of question that is.”
What a brilliant, scathing rebuke from O’Rourke here on an infuriating type of question that’s been plaguing the news media for far too long when it comes to anything related to racism, white supremacy, and more recently, Trump’s increasing racist incitements of race-based violence. It was particularly interesting to see this coming from Beto — someone who has made a household name out of himself by being contagiously upbeat. Someone who clearly adopted Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” mantra, who chooses spreading positive rhetoric over blasting his morally depraved opponents. I’m not at all opposed to someone who decides for themselves to take the higher ground, who elects to save their limited time and energy into effecting meaningful change over hitting back at every single detractor. But let me make one thing very clear: someone who isn’t unambiguously calling out blatant white supremacy and racism when they see it isn’t “taking the moral high ground” — they are COMPLICIT. No matter how kind, well-intended, and civil they are or wish to be — they are complicit. Any institutionalized “ism” doesn’t remain institutionalized solely through the persons in power —it too remains through the silence of the onlookers. So, good on Beto for being abundantly clear that there is no tolerating questions like this.
Back in January, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “Do you believe President Trump is a racist?” and upon (obviously) answering that she does, Cooper replies “How can you say that?”
A few thoughts here. One, Cooper is a seasoned, world renowned journalist who I will assume surely understands the importance of phrasing a question properly. Given that, how can he in good faith have the audacity to ask a woman of color “How can you say that?” — as if there were something shocking and almost offensive at her affirmation? Two, I highly doubt Cooper himself has internal debates as to whether or not Trump is racist — I sincerely hope not, anyway. I know what he’s doing here. He’s asking an open-ended question like this to maintain an appearance of objectivity — as if his mind magically becomes an empty vessel on all things racism and other forms of bigotry when interviewing his guests. But that “appearance” of objectivity is just that — an illusion. Journalists are supposed to get to the truth. Wouldn’t the truth here be to simply state that the President is indeed a racist and proceed with any related questioning from there? I genuinely want to know the upside of not calling state-sponsored racism out for what it is, especially when there are POC being antagonized, threatened, and literally murdered because of it.
Jake Tapper, just a few weeks after four American Congresswomen of color were told to go “back to where they came from” asked none other than Beto O’Rourke, “Do you think President Trump is a white nationalist?”
Imagine what an incredulous, jaw-dropping moment it would be if Tapper asked a Jewish person (or anyone for that matter) “Do you think Adolf Hitler was anti-semitic?” I honestly would have the urge to retort back some purposely asinine question like “Do you think 2 +2 is equal to 4? Yes? How can you say that?” Because asking questions like this at this point is literally so far beyond the pale for me to comprehend. And its outright dangerous. To pose questions like this when this man, through the help of the enabling cronies around him, has given you nothing but boatloads of evidence to show just HOW white nationalist he is. (See: Mexicans are rapists, shithole countries in Africa, why can’t we have people from Norway, “I don’t know anything about David Duke”….the list goes on forever).
My ultimate question to esteemed journalists like Cooper and Tapper and the broader US media — what kind of “objectivity” are you trying to maintain by being so dangerously ambiguous about something objectively heinous? Exactly what truth is being upheld in playing hot potato with the word “racism” and instead insultingly using terms that have no practical meaning whatsoever like “racially-infused” and “racially-charged drumbeat”? And last but not least — what will it literally take for Trump to do for you to stop asking these questions?
I keep using the word “dangerous” to describe this media practice. Jack Holmes, writing for Esquire hits a homerun describing the danger created by the media’s “playing dumb on racism” act—
“ …by casting obvious public racism as a matter of debate for which no one has a definitive answer, it gives the president’s allies an out when their feet should be held to the fire. It gives them room to spout bullshit like, He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, or I know the president’s heart. It makes it harder for casual consumers of the news — people who are working a couple jobs to make ends meet in our structurally imbalanced economy, for instance — to grasp what’s going on as anything except another partisan food-fight.”
On the first point: precisely this. Trump supporters, who are racists themselves, are given ammo that isn’t even being generated by Fox News, for once. They can easily point to the “mainstream media” and potentially think — Oh, look, even the MSM questions liberals on why they think ‘everything under the sun’ is racist. This a common right-wing argument. On the second point: you probably have to be living under a rock at this point if you haven’t been bombarded with evidence of this man’s increasingly overt racism at *some* point over the past 3 years. But at the same time there most certainly are clueless — mainly white — people tuning in at the 11th hour, watching politicians, celebrities, and pundits to “weigh in” their thoughts on the latest “Is It/He Racist?” debate, conveniently facilitated by and participated in by mainly white folks. At a time when we need white people more than ever to recognize that racism is a white person’s problem and that any complacency and apathy will cost more POC lives, we cannot afford any equivocation. We cannot afford them to tune in, unaffected, thinking that this is some partisan “both sides” spectator sport.
And now my own concern here — what about the future generations who learn of Trump long after he is / we are gone? What ambiguous conclusions will they be drawing about him and this period in American history thanks to the media’s complicity in not directly calling him out for what he is?
The media is complicit in engendering and normalizing racism in so many ways beyond just framing and questioning. But my main take this time is: words matter. They can help dismantle or bolster cultural institutions. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. When it comes to America’s historical and cultural cornerstone of racism, its resoundingly a bad thing. It shouldn’t be hard for the media to understand the gravity of this, dismiss any practice of “objectivity” when it comes to this, and unashamedly help the rest of us fight this.
Confession: A part of me feels a bit weird blasting the media so hard at a time when the same hate-filled man also has blood on his hands for calling the media “the enemy of the people”. From sending pipe bombs to CNN to slaughtering truth-to-power journalists with bonesaws in a Turkish embassy, violent people have become emboldened and/or condoned by Trump to target journalists.
The media is not the “enemy of the people”. It is a necessary, powerful institution that helps uncover and expose the truth to the people. But when that truth is objective, outright racism and the media doesn’t unequivocally call it out as such, it isn’t being anyone’s friend.
So dear members of the press, I (and I’m sure Beto) mean this with love — what the fuck. Do far, far better.