E&P "Shoptalk"

Covering autocracy in 2024: Without modification or moderation


Mediaite, a leading source for political news, recently reported what Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in response to former President Donald Trump’s remark about immigrants “poisoning” American blood.

“Well,” McConnell replied, referring to his Taiwanese-born spouse, “it strikes me that didn’t bother him when he appointed Elaine Chao Secretary of Transportation.”

Mediaite then referenced a 2022 comment Trump made about McConnell approving Democrat-sponsored bills. “He has a DEATH WISH. Must immediately seek help and advise (sic) from his China loving wife, Coco Chow!”

Mediaite noted that the attack on Chao “was widely seen” as racist.

It was racist.

The same report also observed that Trump’s death wish remark “was interpreted by critics” as a threat against McConnell.

It was a threat.

Those impartial modifiers are still viewed as appropriate. In the past, reporters also diluted slurs by stating “racially charged” or “motivated.” And they continue to use the term “dog whistle.”

Last year at the Poynter Institute, I wrote that journalism must revise conventional practice if Trump is re-elected, preserving the First Amendment and the rule of law. I cited prominent journalists and judges sounding the alarm.

The Freedom Forum’s Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, emphasized that journalists must remind the public what is at stake when politicians “chip away at hard-won free press court victories and legislation.”

David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University and former executive editor at The Seattle Times, noted,  “Trump flouts the conventions of decorum, decency and democracy, which at times is more than the press can handle.”

Tom Hodson, director emeritus of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and former judicial fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court, foresees that speech will be limited, news sources will no longer be protected as confidential, and libel laws will be changed in favor of “public officials.”

I cited Protect Democracy’s “The Authoritarian Playbook,” which recommends that reporters address three questions:

How much does this action deviate from recent precedent?

To what degree is this happening?

Does this action present a systemic risk to democracy?

For starters, journalists need to drop the impartial modifiers. Consider how ridiculous they sound when attached (my italics) to some of Trump’s more outlandish comments:

In a 2005 recording, Trump professed that he is automatically attracted to beautiful women. In a remark widely viewed as misogynist, he said, ‘I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it.” He then used a noxious term for a woman’s anatomy.

After a 2015 debate appearance, Trump made a comment, interpreted by critics as sexist, about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly — “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

At a 2016 rally, Trump made a seemingly threatening remark about a protestor, saying, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.”

You can find more quotes from him in “50 Outrageous Donald Trump Quotes,” published in 2016.

Each year, the offensive remarks and tweets have been forebodingly autocratic. As The New York Times reported, Trump told Republican activists that shoplifters should be shot and suggested that former Joint Chiefs of Staff should be executed for treason.

Trump believes he can say or do anything as a matter of free speech. He does not want to modify anything. He can lie. He can make false claims. He can stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing votes.

Nevertheless, Trump will likely have to honor gag orders in federal district court to protect the judicial process, although that eventually may be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Journalists must stop worrying about impartiality when dealing with outright racist, sexist or autocratic comments and posts. And it is time to stop using the cliché “dog whistle” and then searching for a source to interpret it.

The Washington Post came to that conclusion three years ago. “The term ‘racist dog whistle’ is not new. But President Trump may represent the perfection of ‘dog-whistle politics,’ using phrases, symbols and tweets to create plausible deniability whenever his policies seem too overtly racist.”

In 2019, the Associate Press Stylebook put the onus on reporters when they hear the whistles of deniability: “The terms racism and racist can be used in broad references or in quotations to describe the hatred of a race or assertion of the superiority of one race over others.”

The Poynter Institute noted, “If you know what to listen for, you get the message.”

That advice is vital now. Journalists should assess facts and call them as they see them, hear them, sense them, taste them, touch them, smell them, and interpret them without modification or moderation.

It’s the only way to cover autocracy.

Michael Bugeja, a distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University, is a regular contributor at Poynter Institute, the Iowa Capital Dispatch and the Des Moines Register. He teaches media ethics and technology and social change. Among his several books are three by Oxford University Press: “Interpersonal Divide: Searching for Community in a Technological Age,” “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” and “Living Ethics Across Media Platforms.” He has twice won the distinguished Clifford Christians Award for Research in Media Ethics. His latest work is “Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms,” Routledge/Taylor & Francis.


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  • formereditor

    Michael Bugeja needs to recuperate from his Trump Derangement Syndrome. It's affecting his judgement, and True North journalism compass. Here's an idea - why doesn't he teach how to report unbiased news? Pearl clutching and hand wringing solved.

    Tuesday, February 20 Report this