As some reporters declare Trump racist, journalism experts urge caution

President Donald Trump walks from the Oval Office as he leaves the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, enroute to Camp David, Md., to participates in congressional Republican leadership retreat. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump ignored questions shouted from the press pool during an event honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Friday about whether he is a racist after he reportedly described African countries as “s***hole countries” in an Oval Office meeting about immigration the day before.

The vulgar statement, expressed while Trump argued the U.S. should welcome immigrants from Norway and Asia but not from Africa, was first reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by other media outlets. He also reportedly said he did not want to accept more people from Haiti as part of a deal to protect young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Democrats have not held back in their response. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was in the room, said Friday that Trump’s language was "hate-filled, vile and racist."

“If the president can’t control himself and lead this country with the authority, dignity and leadership it requires, then he shouldn’t be the president,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “There’s no room for racism in the Oval Office.”

Some Republicans have been critical as well, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. apparently confronted Trump about his comments during the meeting. Haitian-American Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, demanded an apology.

"The comments are unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation's values," she said in a statement. "The president must apologize to both the American people and the nations he so wantonly maligned."

Trump denied saying derogatory things about Haiti and he insisted the language being reported is not exactly what he said, but he did not dispute denigrating people from African countries. The White House and some congressional Republicans have defended or dismissed his vulgar rhetoric.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told Sinclair illegal immigration, border security, and DACA are too important to get sidetracked by Trump’s words.

“We should be able to address all these issues at once unless we’re distracted by what was or was not said,” he said. “Who cares?”

Trump’s reported comments posed challenges for media outlets, not the least of which was whether to quote his profanity directly.

On air, online, and in print, editors struggled over quoting his vulgar words verbatim or censoring themselves. Cable anchors and reporters used the term “s***hole” frequently throughout the night while many newspapers opted to avoid the word on their front pages.

George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “Good Morning America” questioned his own network’s decision not to use the word.

“I think that’s probably a mistake because I don’t think it’s right to censor the president or to sugarcoat the racist sentiment,” he said on the air Friday.

Describing Trump’s statements on racial matters has always been tricky for journalists. Some have even been disciplined for derogatory comments about the president’s views on race and immigration.

On Thursday, though, each of CNN’s primetime news anchors was forthright in condemning Trump.

“The president is a racist,” declared Don Lemon at the top of his show. “A lot of us already knew that.”

Anderson Cooper rejected euphemisms often used to describe other controversial Trump comments like “racially-charged.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves or dance around it,” he said. “The sentiment the president expressed today was a racist sentiment.”

Chris Cuomo wrote “s***hole” on a white board and said, “The president is just showing you who he is. This is the gift that he decided to give the American people.”

On Fox News, some hosts of opinion programs defended Trump, noting that living conditions in the countries he referred to are terrible and many people would agree with Trump’s description.

“If you say Norway is a better place to live and Haiti is kind of a hole, well anyone who’s been to those countries or has lived in them would agree,” said Tucker Carlson.

“If you’re at a bar, and you’re in Wisconsin, and you think they’re bringing in a bunch of Haiti people, or El Salvadorians, or people from Niger, this is how some people talk,” Jesse Watters said on “The Five.”

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Journalism experts say Trump’s extreme and at times unprecedented behavior can justify covering him in a similarly unprecedented way but reporters must be cautious.

“Journalists are in as tough a spot as ever because they’re covering someone who is his own worst enemy,” said Scott Talan, a former journalist and a professor at American University. He added that Trump’s constant accusations and insults engender no sympathy and do little to earn the benefit of the doubt from the press or the public.

Still, objectively declaring the president of the United States racist themselves is risky.

“Journalists should find someone willing to say it,” Talan said. “If they can’t find someone to say it, maybe it’s not true.”

According to Fred Bayles, who spent 20 years as a national reporter for the Associated Press and USA Today, the audience does not need to know if a particular reporter thinks Trump is racist, and if you give them the facts, they will decide for themselves.

“My thought is you present what the president does and says,” said Bayles, a professor emeritus at Boston University and author of "Field Guide to Reporting Local News," “and you can present the reaction to that from diplomats, from other politicians, from leaders of the other countries and that by itself should do the job of informing the public.”

While he agrees reporters should generally resist veering into commentary, former CNN DC bureau chief Frank Sesno said Trump has a long history of trafficking in racist sentiments that is difficult to overlook.

“For someone to take comments like yesterday and say there’s racism going on here, that’s connecting the dots,” said Sesno, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

According to Don Irvine, CEO of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, the media pile-on was unfair but unsurprising.

“I think that’s the problem is they definitely raced out and jumped to a conclusion that he definitely said that,” he said. “They’re waiting for opportunities to jump out and say there you go, he’s a racist, he’s vulgar.”

Irvine has seen an increasingly harsh tone in recent coverage of Trump that has overwhelmed positive developments involving the economy. He believes Trump’s critics are emboldened by potential Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm elections.

“Jumping on Trump, the media can do this,” he said. “They see him as being very vulnerable.”

Others see a similar escalation in critical coverage, but they lay blame on the president.

“You could argue it’s getting harsher because he’s getting harsher,” Bayles said. “He says certain things and he doesn’t really seem subdued by the reaction to it, so that may open him up to even greater excesses, and as that happens, the reaction rises to greater excesses to.”

Sesno would like to see more thoughtful and restrained coverage that unpacks the consequences of Trump’s behavior instead of zeroing in on outrage. However, he added, “Trump has drawn this coverage upon himself.”

The “s***hole” comment crowded out other big stories involving controversial statements by the president Thursday. Earlier in the day, Trump posted a tweet criticizing the government’s authority to conduct surveillance, contradicting his administration’s official stance. House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly then spent a half hour explaining the issue to the president by phone, after which Trump sent another tweet endorsing the renewal of the program.

None of this has helped the White House advance its case that the characterization of the president in Michael Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury,” is inaccurate. The book, citing interviews with staffers, claims Trump is uninformed, easily confused, and mentally unfit for his job. Trump himself has taken to Twitter to decry Wolff as a fraud and declare he is “a very stable genius.”

Wolff’s book and a recent briefing held for some members of Congress about Trump’s mental state spurred unusually blunt debates on cable news about whether or not the president is stable. Trump alleged that Democrats and the media were using “the Ronald Reagan playbook” on him, referring to questions about President Reagan’s mental fitness in the 1980s. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years after leaving office.

According to Talan, the constant churn of news and controversy from this White House means reporters do not have to stretch to play armchair psychologists.

“This president has provided the media with the biggest bonanza of news that I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Irvine said the mental fitness debate is the latest example of the press holding Trump to a different standard than his predecessors.

“I’m not sure that the press, starting at the beginning, planned to treat him like other presidents,” he said. “There was some antagonism on both sides from the get-go.”

Irvine acknowledged that Trump speaks and acts differently, but he rejected the notion that the president’s behavior indicates mental instability.

“They love to try to poke the holes and say he says this or does this and that means he’s unstable,” he said.

As with questions about Trump’s racial attitudes, Bayles said the media is better off showing than telling with regard to Trump’s sanity.

“The behavior is an extreme compared to what we’re used to,” he said. “And in some cases, some of the things he says and the stream of consciousness thinking, I don’t think most people need somebody to point out it’s sometimes very bizarre.”

Moving forward, some in the press could face a new test: how to fairly cover, and be seen as fairly covering, a president who they have branded as racist.

“I think there’s still an opportunity to be considered objective but it depends on what they say and do going forward,” Irvine said. “Are we going to pull back and say maybe we just crossed a line a little bit here?”

Many have already made up their minds about the mainstream media's treatment of the president, but Sesno said CNN’s coverage of Trump Thursday reached “a different decibel level than we’ve seen before” and it may be even more difficult to change perceptions now.

“The biggest challenge with a news organization that makes a declarative statement is it has, in making that statement, declared sides,” he said. “Once they’ve declared sides, they will no longer be seen as an honest broker by those who side with Trump.”

Alternately, refusing to state what, to many, seems obvious about the president will be dismissed as pulling punches and alienate the other side. It is a difficult balance, and nobody has definitive answers for how to navigate the growing journalistic minefield of the Trump presidency.

“I think we are in uncharted territory here in terms of the behavior of this president, so it’s hard to go back to the old rule book and figure out how to handle it,” Bayles said.

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