Much of the establishment media made the decision this week to describe President Trump’s inflammatory “go back” tweet, directed at several non-white Democratic congresswomen, as “racist.” They did this not in the context of opinion programming, but objective news coverage.
There is a legitimate case to be made that Trump’s tweet was, indeed, racist—intentionally or otherwise. It’s not a case with which I agree, but it’s certainly a reasonable one. Personally, I side with Brit Hume, who tweeted: “Trump’s ‘go back’ comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactul [sic] and politically stupid. But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.”
This is not an argument necessarily rooted in a reflexive need to defend the president or split hairs and dunk on the press, but actually a genuine effort to prevent the kind of media malpractice that is hurting the institution by causing consumers to lose trust.
Consumers lose trust because the alleged racism of Trump’s language is a matter of debate in the first place. If this is debatable even within the ideologically monolithic mainstream media itself (and it is, from NPR to the Washington Post) imagine the diversity of opinion outside coastal newsrooms. This CNN panel is just a taste of that. When a lot of decent people see what they perceive as the misapplication of a serious label, they trust it less the next time it’s used. And the next time it’s used may be much more clear cut.
Think of a future politician along the lines of Arthur Jones, a Holocaust-denying bigot who ran for Congress as a Republican in Illinois last cycle. When people like him are able to approach average voters and say the left-wing media is smearing them as racist, those claims carry more credibility because voters have actually seen the left-wing media smear decent people as racists (see: Covington Catholic), or because they believe it’s simply been overused, as many likely do in this case. There are real, dangerous consequences to decisions like these.
Of course, there are also real and dangerous consequences to tip-toeing around clear-cut racism. Deciding how to use these labels is not an easy task, and shouldn’t be treated as one.
Make the argument that it’s racist as an opinion journalist. Give the argument fair airtime as a neutral one. But so long as much of the media purports to be objective, the public should be let to make its own judgment in close calls—not for the sake of the president, but for the sake of the institution.