Numerous outlets gave Trump a pass for racist tweets in their headlines

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump made openly racist remarks on Sunday, tweeting that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” of color should “go back” to other countries instead of “telling the people of the United States ... how our government is to be run.” Many tweets and headlines from news organizations reporting on Trump’s posts failed to accurately label them as racist and instead merely quoted others doing so -- or even worse, simply quoted his words without criticism.

CNN, BuzzFeed News, and The Daily Beast accurately described Trump’s attack on the Democratic representatives as “racist” in many of their social media posts and headlines.

However, some prominent national media outlets fell back on insufficient euphemisms to describe Trump’s racist tweets. Several ABC News Twitter accounts described the president’s comments as “racially-charged,” as did The Wall Street Journal and NPR (though a later ABC News headline did describe the tweets as “racist”). The New York Times in particular failed in its multiple news articles covering the tweets, in one headline describing what Trump wrote as fanning a “racial fire.”

Even worse, the Times gave equal weight in a headline to a later Trump tweet accusing the targets of his original racist tweets of racism.

Experienced journalists criticized the Times for failing to accurately convey the racist nature of Trump’s remarks in its own words. And one Times television critic who did not single out his paper wrote: “A real problem is that politics in Trump’s era has taken on a moral dimension that news outlets either aren’t equipped to cover, or think it’s their duty to avoid. And if they avoid it, they avoid their job, which is to accurately represent to their audience what’s happening.”

Instead of describing Trump’s tweets as racist in their own words, many other media outlets hid behind quotes from Trump’s “critics” or Democrats.

Quite a few headlines and Twitter posts from various news organizations didn’t even include criticism of Trump’s racist comments, simply parroting them in full or in part and thus giving them credibility.

And some media outlets’ headlines and tweets treated Trump’s comments as a claim to be fact-checked, instead of calling out the racist nature of what he wrote. The Associated Press even treated Trump’s racism to a debunking:

THE FACTS: The women-of-color lawmakers whom Trump is criticizing are American citizens.

He was almost certainly referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and her allies in what's become known as “the squad.” The others are Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Only Omar, from Somalia, is foreign-born.

Ocasio-Cortez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in suburban Westchester County. Pressley, the first black woman elected to the House from Massachusetts, was born in Cincinnati.

Omar, the first Somali native elected to Congress and one of its first Muslim women, was born in Somalia but spent much of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp as civil war tore apart her home country. She immigrated to the United States at age 12, teaching herself English by watching American TV and eventually settling with her family in Minneapolis.

Tlaib, who is Muslim, was born in Detroit.

Trump appeared to be inserting himself into a rift between Pelosi and the liberal congresswomen. Pelosi has been seeking to minimize Ocasio-Cortez's influence in recent days, prompting Ocasio-Cortez to accuse Pelosi of trying to marginalize women of color.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, calling out some of the media coverage that failed to label Trump’s tweets as racist, wrote:

It makes good sense for media organizations to be careful and non-inflammatory in their news coverage. That kind of caution continues to be a virtue.

But a crucial part of being careful is being accurate, clear and direct. When confronted with racism and lying, we can’t run and hide in the name of neutrality and impartiality. To do that is a dereliction of duty.

Journalists don’t need to see themselves as political advocates when they say obvious things in plain terms. And doing so doesn’t make them Democratic operatives as their pro-Trump critics are sure to charge.

It just means they are doing the most fundamental job they have: telling the truth as plainly and directly as possible.