Trumplandia 2016 (Prelude): What Mainstream Media Hath Wrought

The election of Barack Obama prompted a rash claim that the U.S. was officially post-racial. As a cruel commentary on that misinterpretation of the first black president, the era of Donald Trump has coincided with the Oxford Dictionary naming “post-truth” the word of the year.

Part of being “post-truth” includes that which shall not be named.

For example, “[a]n Alabama police officer has been fired for sharing racist memes, including one about Michelle Obama,” reports Lindsey Bever of the Washington Post. But the police department’s explanation for the firing is important to analyze:

Bryant, the city manager, said statements that are “deemed to be biased or racially insensitive or derogatory” can affect the community’s trust in the police department and, when that happens, “we have to take action to correct it.”

Not racist, not racism, but “racially insensitive.”

While Bever does use “racist” in the lede, later she explains:

Since Donald Trump was elected president, a wave of racially and religiously motivated acts of intimidation, violence and harassment have swept across the country — from a middle school in Michigan and a high school in Pennsylvanian to universities in Texas and elsewhere.

Not a wave of racism, but “racially motivated acts.”

And while this article and the incidences Bever details are mostly about how racists and racism have been confronted and with consequences (multiple firings of public officials), the piece still reflects the tendency in the U.S. for mainstream media to avoid or tiptoe around directly naming racists and racism.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, explains in a detailed blog post:

I said over two years ago that media style guides precluded major newspapers from calling something racist.

Then I asked around and professional media people told me that there isn’t a style convention on this matter so much as an informal culture. The general rule, I was told, is to never call anything racist and certainly to never call anyone racist. At best, they might quote someone calling something or someone racist.

The implication is that there is no such thing as objectively racist. Racism, according to many mainstream media producers and gatekeepers, can only be subjective.

While, again, Bever’s journalism is relatively bold in this context identified by Cottom, the authority figure in the article represents well a fundamental problem in the U.S. with naming racists and racism.

For example, in 2014, when high school students dressed in black face for intramural football, the principal reacted as follows:

A group of seniors in Sullivan, Missouri was criticized after donning blackface for an intramural football game, which their principal said fueled a misunderstanding, the Riverfront Times reported.

“I thought, ‘Oh, they don’t mean anything by it. Just let it go. No one thinks anything of it,’” Sullivan High School principal Jennifer Schmidt. “I didn’t think anyone did. Evidently, someone did.”

Schmidt said the 12 seniors painted their faces black on Nov. 5 as part of a charity “powder-puff” football game organized by the junior class. According to her, the face paint was intended to be a parody of the football team’s habit of wearing eye-black on their own faces.

Broadly, then, although in the U.S. there is lip service given to the importance of a free press in a democracy, the real problem is that there is no critical free press—one that honors a careless “both sides” and “press release” journalism over offering the public informed stances.

In the prelude to the era of Trumplandia, we are now faced with how the lack of a critical free press either allowed or created Trump and how the rise of a critical free press could suppress the danger inherent in Trump’s tenure as president and turn the tide against bigotry.

A vivid example of the dangers ofthe traditionally passive mainstream media is the coverage of Trump considering former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee for Secretary of Education; for example, Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week:

Trump’s search for education secretary appears to be crossing party lines. Rhee, who has identified as a Democrat throughout her career, is a strong supporter of school choice (including vouchers), which appears to be the top K-12 priority for Trump. She also rose to prominence for how she handled teachers and teacher evaluations during her tenure in the District of Columbia, which lasted from 2007 to 2010. In 2010, she left the nation’s capital and founded StudentsFirst, an advocacy group that pushes for choice, reforms to labor policies often unfriendly to teachers’ unions, and data-based school accountability. She stepped down as the leader of StudentsFirst in 2014.

Framed as crossing party lines, and then detailing in Wikipedia fashion Rhee’s professional resume, this coverage ignores Rhee’s lack of experience in education (a Teach For America corp member) as well as her tenure in DC that was either significantly mismanaged or outright criminal [1].

Even more telling is Ujifusa’s use of the standard mainstream journalism “both sides” reduction of all issues—some will applaud Rhee and some will not. Of course, no effort is made to make an informed recognition that Rhee is, like Trump, so tarnished in her career that she is unsuited for public service.

Those in positions of authority and the mainstream media who report on them are both trapped in maintaining and creating a safe space throughout the U.S. to protect racism, white privilege, and sexism/misogyny from being named. As Cottom includes about this phenomenon:

The most cited and widely recognized [research] is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s theory of colorblind racism in which there is racism but no racists….

Media had, at some point, produced a culture that normalized using euphemisms for racism and racists.

And so, in Trumplandia, not only is truth sacrificed, but also is any semblance of expertise, credibility, or ethics.

The consequence of that approach is Trump himself and now the government he has the power to build.

The only antidote to perpetuating bigotry is to name it—including especially by a critical free press that could be a powerful force for a free people.

[1] Omitting as well that Rhee’s husband, Kevin Johnson, is also a seriously tarnished public official.



One thought on “Trumplandia 2016 (Prelude): What Mainstream Media Hath Wrought”

  1. Also missing is the alleged conversation that Trump and Kevin Johnson might have had behind closed doors when they started comparing who groped and sexually molested the most women and underage girls, just locker-room talk, right?

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