The failure of mainstream news outlets to take seriously white supremacy in the name of “objectivity” is not a new phenomenon; rather, it is unfortunately firmly rooted in the American journalistic tradition. We must remain vigilant and hold newspapers and other media outlets to the highest standard, for their words matter and directly affect actions taken by members of the public.
A recently proposed print headline in The New York Times regarding the president’s words on the El Paso mass shooting was revised after public outrage quickly surfaced.
The headline read ”Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” and it has been harshly criticized by readers, people on Twitter and even Times editors themselves for lacking the profound context that A) the president is racist, B) the El Paso terrorist attack was motivated by white supremacy and carried out by a white supremacist, and C) the manifesto written by the shooter directly mimics Trump’s racist rhetoric.
The initial headline presupposed that this integral context did not matter for a story in which white supremacy and the president’s role are central for understanding.
The headline was quickly changed to “Assailing Hate But Not Guns,” which sort-of tackles the issue in that it references Trump’s inaction on gun control, but also sort-of misses the point in that “assailing hate” does not seem like the most accurate phrase to describe the reality of Trump’s general demeanor.
Accused of whitewashing and erasing the ramifications of racist rhetoric, the Times readily made amends with its internal decision-making processes. Matt Purdy, a deputy managing editor for the Times, addressed the paper’s failure, saying: “When a group of top editors received an email with the first edition of the front page last night, we saw the headline, realized that it was not a good one and decided to change it. It’s not uncommon for our masthead editors to adjust headlines as we go.”
To fully grasp why media’s coverage of race, specifically the language used, is so important, it is first necessary to understand that American journalism has not always been about bringing to light injustice. U.S. papers have also published articles that demonized and dehumanized communities of color, empowering violence and discrimination against those communities in addition to omitting or limiting coverage of certain atrocities motivated by white supremacy because of ignorance and a desire to appeal to a broad base (read: white readers).
An American History of Suppression
Papers ignored anti-Jewish genocide, they promoted segregation, they falsely accused Black men of violence, and their shortsightedness and unethical coverage led to lynchings and mob killings, all of which the fourth estate must continue to reckon with today.
“New Warsaw Ghetto Described in Berlin” reads one New York Times headline, published during World War II. According to a report in The Daily Beast, “Between 1939 and 1945, The New York Times published more than 23,000 front-page stories. Of those, 11,500 were about World War II. Twenty-six were about the Holocaust.” Laurel Jeff, author of Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, wrote that in only six of those stories “were Jews identified on page one as the primary victims [of the Holocaust].”
The Warsaw Ghetto headline is not just weak and nondescriptive, it represented what the same report denotes “a conscious decision to bury the paper’s Holocaust coverage.” The Warsaw Ghetto was where Jews were forced into inhumane conditions and where many Jews starved to death, were orphaned, died of disease, and were transported to death camps in droves; by the headline, one would not know any of this.
The Times has admitted its grave mistake in regard to Holocaust coverage. In a Times column by Max Frankel, he writes that there was no failure “greater than the staggering, staining failure of The New York Times to depict Hitler’s methodical extermination of the Jews of Europe as a horror beyond all the horrors in World War II – a Nazi war within the war crying out for illumination.”
When Papers Promote Violence
The Times, though the most famous and easily-targeted publication, is not the only outlet that has reckoned with its ignorance of, and thus complicity with, white supremacy. According to Mark Pinsky’s comprehensive history of the role of small papers in racially-motivated violence, many local southern papers have recently come out to say that their historical coverage of segregation and anti-Black violence was wrong and perpetuated racist ideology.
The Orlando Sentinel apologized in January for its coverage of the Groveland Four, the name given to the four Black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. “We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative,” the editorial board wrote in its somber letter addressed to the community and to the four men.
While the apology was necessary and comprehensive, it cannot erase the fact that two of the falsely-accused men were shot to death, in part due to the racist and provocative reporting by the Sentinel.
In an editorial entitled, “Our shame: The sins of our past laid bare for all to see,” the Montgomery Advertiser apologized for its “dehumanizing” coverage of Alabama lynchings from the late 17th century through the mid 20th century. “We propagated a world view rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority,” wrote the editorial board, which legitimized the murder and brutalization of Black bodies with its coverage.
Shameful and truthful, the apology cannot bring back those who were lynched in part due to the normalization of such violence in white media.
And, there are still omissions and inflammatory articles that have yet to be atoned for.
According to research by Kathy Roberts Forde, the Atlanta Constitution’s reporting is partly responsible for the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, in which armed white mobs attacked Black Atlantans, killing many, in response to reporting by the Constitution that provoked fear through falsely accusing Black men of raping white women. Forde also charged the paper’s coverage with contributing to the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915. Frank was a Jewish factory manager, convicted of killing his 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, despite evidence that he had nothing to do with the murder.
In 1919, the Arkansas Gazette published a front-page story with the headline: “Negroes Plan to Kill All Whites” with regard to the Elaine Massacre. Black sharecroppers organized themselves in a church to form a union; a white mob attacked the church, firing shots. The folks inside the church, under siege, returned fire and one member of the white mob died. 500 white soldiers were gathered and ordered to kill any Black person who did not surrender. At least 200 Black people were massacred by the soldiers, during which five white people also died. For this, 122 Black people were arrested and 12 sentenced to death, though they were eventually released.
Local papers, including the Gazette, sensationalized the events and framed them as white people defending themselves against an organized Black conspiracy rather than for what it was: an indiscriminate massacre of Black Alabamans by a violent group of white men operating on white supremacist ideology.
There are many more of these examples, many more local and national newspapers alike that either propagated false information that promoted the public demonization of marginalized communities or purposely sat on information concerning violence used against those communities or just simply refused to call-out and condemn racism when it was clear to all who wanted to see it.
Holding Today’s Journalists to the Highest Standards
Today, no one could claim that The New York Times and Donald Trump have a buddy-buddy relationship, nor that the Times is an all-white newspaper, nor that the Times does not engage in reporting that uncovers injustice, including that which is racial in nature. Clearly, this recent misstep is not on the level of previous acts of journalistic immorality.
But, all journalistic institutions by virtue of their being majority-white and attempting to appeal to a broad base, as well as their being human-run and thus subject to the racial biases that pervade society, can fall trap to framing stories in a way that appears objective but actually upholds and promotes institutions of white supremacy through their “apolitical” language.
This is exactly what the “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” headline did. It is factually correct in an attempt to be “apolitical,” and yet at the same time, it is dangerously inaccurate because it suggests that Trump is a harbinger of racial unity and peace. In reality, he is a dangerous president whose racist rhetoric empowers white supremacists to inflict violence on immigrant communities and communities of color.
We must continue to hold journalists in the highest of esteem by demanding that their fullest attention is placed on ensuring that their coverage – including their headlines – never gives way to the rhetoric that appeases white supremacy and that they acknowledge that language is always political, even that language which is omitted. What is put on the front page matters. What language is used in the largest font matters. Whose stories are focused on matters. Whose perspectives are included matters.
It all matters, especially when a president that all-too-easily espouses racist demagoguery is in office.
It is easy to use seemingly “neutral” language to erase difference and conflict and nefarious ideology; it is difficult, and all the more necessary, to craft a headline that explicitly exposes that difference and that conflict and that nefarious ideology for what it is and for how it oppresses.