News networks frequently use the word “controversial” to describe Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican comments, and it’s setting a dangerous precedent for the way the media talks about bigotry in American politics.
Trump’s candidacy has brought religious and racial bigotry to the forefront of Republican presidential politics. He’s repeatedly demonized Muslims and Mexicans on the campaign trail, scapegoating them as security threats to justify calling for mass deportations, government surveillance, and travel bans.
That has put news networks in the uncomfortable position of trying to remain “impartial” while covering Trump’s increasingly deplorable rhetoric. Instead of plainly labeling his campaign as “bigoted,” networks have used neutral-sounding terms like “controversial” to avoid making editorial judgments about Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican positions.
But calling Trump’s comments “controversial” is lazy and dangerous. It treats racial and religious intolerance as just a quirk of Republican politics. It normalizes that intolerance, turning it into an unremarkable and routine partisan disagreement. It lets Trump’s defenders spin his comments as just evidence of his “tough” stance on immigration or border security. And it makes it easier for Trump to reinvent himself as a serious “presidential” candidate as he prepares for the general election.
Failing to call out Trump’s bigotry also makes it harder for news networks to accurately tell the story of Trump’s rise in Republican politics. As PBS’s Tavis Smiley explained on Democracy Now in January:
Trump is still, to my mind at least, an unrepentant, irascible religious and racial arsonist. And so, when we talk about how Donald Trump is rising in the poll, you can’t do that absent the kind of campaign he’s running, the issues that he’s raising. And for us to just say, “Donald Trump is rising in the polls,” and not connect that to the base message that he’s putting out there, I think, just misses the point.
Religious and racial bigotry deserves to be treated differently than other campaign trail stories, especially by journalists. News networks that shy away from making editorial judgments about Trump’s extremism are setting a dangerous precedent -- one that could last long beyond this election cycle.