Last year, The Huffington Post assigned stories on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to the entertainment section, seeing him as a buffoonish diversion.
It now appears to view Trump as a threat, attaching an editor’s note to the end of every article about him to inform readers he “is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully.”
The website’s lurching approach is just one of the more visible ways in which journalists are wrestling with how to characterize Donald Trump’s rhetoric. A growing chorus of critics contend that the outspoken billionaire has relied on an undercurrent of racism to propel him to front-runner status in the Republican presidential primaries.
Prominent Republicans have added their voices to the fray in recent days, including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who tweeted that Trump was “coddling bigotry,” and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who warned his party did not tolerate prejudice.
It is harder for journalists to employ such cutting terms.
“I am not one, especially in news stories, to advocate using loaded language,” says Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times. “Certainly labeling a candidate a racist or a demagogue — those are loaded terms.”
Abramson says Trump’s words often contain evidence of both racism and demagoguery. Instead of applying labels to Trump, however, Abramson advocates that reporters pursue context unrelentingly: “When he says something that is clearly bigoted or racially tinged, it’s important to … press the Trump campaign on what evidence he bases the sometimes outrageous things he has said.”
Abramson also argues reporters should convey how Trump’s speeches and remarks often echo earlier, ugly eras in American politics — such as the 1976 presidential campaign of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, which Abramson says she covered as a young reporter.
Journalists readily have committed themselves to shining light on the times when Trump makes blatantly false statements; indeed, fact-checkers have had a field day. In November, for example, CBS’s Nancy Cordes pointed out he tweeted a statistic that most whites who are murdered were killed by blacks. “Actually, the opposite is true,” she told viewers.
When Trump advocated that all Muslims be barred from entering the United States because of the deadly intentions of Muslim terrorists, it generated days of coverage, but proved a more complicated topic. Many critics pointed to that position as bigotry because it singled people out for their faith.
Journalists often ask Trump about his beliefs, but many journalists resist the urge to make explicit characterizations about his statements themselves, no doubt informed by a tradition that reporters are not supposed to take sides.
“I am the least racist person that you have ever met,” Trump told CNN’s Don Lemon in December, after being asked whether he was a racist, a bigot or an Islamophobe. “I am a person who happens to be very smart. I happen to have a certain street sense. And I know where things are going.”
Trump’s critics point to a long list of outrages in making the case he is a bigot. For example, Trump was the nation’s most prominent birther, questioning President Obama’s citizenship and eligibility for the White House.
In announcing his campaign, Trump declared Mexico is sending drugs and crime and rapists across the border into this country. Trump praised the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II.
And the Trump campaign seems to flirt with extremist groups. In one recent instance, it granted full press credentials to radio talk show host James Edwards, a white supremacist, who then claimed he had conducted an interview with Donald Trump Jr. for broadcast. The campaign told reporters the younger Trump believed he had not done so.
“Look at how he responds to criticism,” says Michelle Jaconi, a former senior news executive at CNN who is now executive editor of the conservative social media site Independent Journal. “He says, ‘I’m comfortable being associated with controversial quotes.’ … Shock is part of his M.O.”
Jaconi says Trump is a master of using political language as code to appeal to an audience that the news media often approaches with condescension.
“He’s stripped that apart just to say, ‘Are you more sick of media and voices and pundits labeling me — and aren’t you refreshed to hear somebody just calling it like it is?’ ” Jaconi says. ” ‘Are you more sick of political correctness, or bad language?’ “
Distrust of elite media and political figures runs so deep among the voters Trump is targeting, Jaconi says, that journalists who do call him a racist or demagogue are dismissed.
Last week, Trump disavowed public statements of support from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. On Sunday, however, CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the question once more.
Trump hedged: “I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
After the show Trump again disavowed Duke, but liberal HBO satirist John Oliver said the public had learned something about Trump.
“With an answer like that, you are either racist, or you are pretending to be,” Oliver said. “And at some point, there is no difference there.”
Of course, as Oliver takes great pains to say, he’s no journalist — just a comedian.