The media's "Made in America" problem: Trump creates racist controversy, gets free campaign coverage

Trump's racist tweets are part of his latest effort to get free campaign coverage, forcing the news to cover him

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 16, 2019 4:05PM (EDT)

President Donald Trump takes questions from reporters during his 'Made In America' product showcase at the White House July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
President Donald Trump takes questions from reporters during his 'Made In America' product showcase at the White House July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Let’s presume, however depressing that notion may be, that mainstream news organizations will continue to fumble the ball when it comes to directly calling blatantly racist statements coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth what they are, which is racist.

Let’s also presume that in the fallout of such incidents like Trump’s racist tweets on Sunday, media organizations adopt predictable stances. Most struggle to maintain a sense of equanimity and fairness when it comes to calling out Trump’s racism. Fox amplifies it.

Let’s presume all of this so we can address the clearer and more present problem in covering this President, which isn't whether what Trump tweeted and said was racist — it is, full stop — or even whether TV news is ready to actually call Trump on that racism.

Instead, let’s talk about how, once again, Trump is manipulating free campaign advertising out of the media by transforming ostensibly non-newsworthy events into must-cover press opportunities.  He can plan a seemingly innocuous gathering like “Made in America,” then let fly with any number of incendiary, racist, xenophobic statements the night before.

That way he doesn’t have to answer questions about tariffs, trade wars or the impact of his tax policy on Americans. He can spew poisonous rhetoric about people of color and make a show of bullying reporters —“Quiet, QUIET” he boomed over a woman attempting to ask him a question — and walk away from the podium. From there all he has to do is watch the spin cycle head into overdrive.

The past 48 hours revealed multiple areas of ill-preparedness on the part of TV news organizations and newspapers, foremost being the press’s sustained discomfort with calling Trump’s racism for what it is.

However, this is another part of a larger issue it must contend with as the 2020 election heats up. Remember that by several estimates, Trump received billions in free media exposure largely thanks to cable news channels covering his press events, often cutting away from his opponent Hillary Clinton’s appearances to do so. The media tracking firm mediaQuant, Inc. put its estimate of this unpaid coverage's value in excess of $5 billion.

But that number only takes into account the period between July 2015 through October 2016. Since his election, Trump has hosted scores of rallies that news networks felt obligated to cover for a time, although MSNBC and CNN eventually stopped doing so. Both cable nets and broadcast news outfits also stepped up their fact-checking, with CNN often doing so live, via their banners.

Trump has an entire network willing to drop everything and allow him to dial in and rant whenever he feels like it, and say whatever he wants without being questioned. But Fox News is a more limited platform than what Trump requires to win re-election. In order to reach more people, he needs access to broadcast audiences and exposure on CNN and MSNBC.

The result, as we’re seeing, is a new strategy that resembled the old strategy except more brazenly divisive and aware of location, location, location — this one being the White House. Since the networks are no longer guaranteed to cover every small-town rally Trump hosts, he's now forcing coverage by staging versions of them at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sunday’s tweet, in which Trump opined that four progressive Democrat lawmakers, all women of color, should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” represents an escalation of this tactic. It commenced in earnest with last week’s “social media summit,” a deceptive title for an event more accurately characterized as a right-wing extremist troll party.

Among the invited guests were Project Veritas founder and misinformation fountain James O’Keefe, QAnon conspiracy proponent Bill Mitchell, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, operative Ali Alexander and wingnut radio host and former White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka.

Absent were representatives from Google, Twitter or Facebook, because they weren’t invited. Of course they weren’t. This wasn’t an actual summit, but a thank you celebration of the people who exploit them for Trump’s benefit. “The crap you think of is unbelievable,” he said in praise of his minions while walking them through the greatest tweets of his presidency.

Later Gorka did his old boss a solid and publicly picked a fistfight with Brian Karem, who covers the White House for Playboy and, like the rest of the press corps, was seated behind the trolls and conspiracy theorists.

How did the New York Times describe this event’s attendees in its July 11 headline?  As “Conservative Internet Activists.”

Moving on to Monday morning, when Trump  took questions from the White House press corps during his “Made in America” event, a PR party that in other administrations might not even merit a 10-second mention on a slow news day.  Last year’s “Made in America” was knocked for serving the event’s guests, all invited owners or employees of companies whose products were featured, with silverware manufactured in China.

We don’t know the provenance of the forks, knives, spoons and plates used for this year’s “Made in America,” not that said knowledge has any value beyond the jokes. What drove Monday's coverage was Trump’s question-and-answer battle with reporters, during which he doubled down on his racism.

“These are people who hate our country . . .  they hate our country. Period,” he said. When he added, “And I don’t think the American people are going to stand for it,” his invited guests applauded and whooped in agreement.

Immediately in the wake of carrying the presser live, MSNBC host Ali Velshi observed that compared to Trump’s past rhetoric, “this actually feels different to me. This feels like the president really owning the idea that he’s seeing things that are attractive to white nationalists and racists.” Exactly. They're this ad's targets.

CNN called it like it is (“Racist Attack: Trump Denies Racist Tweets Were Racist,” one banner read)  and that’s fine by the racist responsible for the racism, because to him and his acolytes CNN is “fake news.”

MSNBC veered leftward in its coverage — although, notably, NBC continued to hew to its policy of forbidding correspondents from directly calling racists or their actions racist. Joining NBC was CBS, ABC and a number of other news services that let the ambiguous group known as “critics” call the tweet racist.

But by the time CBS’s evening newscast aired, Norah O’Donnell — who seamlessly  made her debut  in the anchor chair  — called out Trump’s racism. Even the newscast’s onscreen banners described the tweets thusly.

On the other end of the scale was Fox News, which already softened the ground for Trump via Tucker Carlson’s multiple bigoted attacks on immigrants and people of color, last week's focus Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., being his latest.

Mind you, it was Fox’s White House correspondent John Roberts who teased out of Trump the statement that drove Monday’s news cycle.

“Does it concern you that many people saw that tweet as racist, and that white nationalists are finding common cause with you on that point?” Roberts asked Monday on the White House South Lawn.

Trump answered, “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me. And all I’m saying is, if they want to leave, they can leave.” Then he added, “A lot of people love it, by the way.”

After that clarification, it was a settled matter for Fox — clearly Trump’s racism is the fault of Omar and her fellow freshman Congressional representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). If only they would stop being so socialist.

Harris Faulkner, in the direct wake of Trump admitting he’s fine with white nationalists agreeing with him, placed the blame for Trump’s racism right where it belongs. “This is part, now, of the nomenclature, part of the conversation in 2020. And who put us there? Four congresswoman now are the focus, and they were fighting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

On “Outnumbered” co-host Katie Pavlich helpfully clarified that Trump didn’t mean to imply, you know, that these black and brown women should “go back” to where they came from permanently. “He said go there, fix the problem, come back,” Pavlich said. Quite charitable, honestly.

When the women held their own press conference in response and Omar reminded Americans of Trump’s past sexist and racist comments, Fox pundits quickly declared that in the “round” between Trump and the women, as if this were a sporting event, the Congressional representatives lost. And Fox host Dana Perino was very upset that Omar cursed on television. (Omar was quoting Trump’s own statements.)

This is all as predictable as Trump’s doubling and tripling down, as are all the written columns citing Trump’s statement as yet more definitive proof of his racism, and the lengthy explainers of why the phrase “go back to where you came from” is a painful slur, even though such a thing should not require explanation in 2019.

On Tuesday Trump was still going after Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley, as Pelosi drafted a resolution to condemn the tweet. The House Speaker's move is symbolic but also toothless, and contributes to Trump’s aim, which is to rile up his base, using the media to his own ends and delegitimizing it at the same time.

This puts any news organization that isn’t Fox or one of Trump’s misinformation-spreading surrogates in a hard place they partly constructed for themselves. So fearful have they become of seeming biased that they’re not calling out actual and dangerous bias when it takes center stage.

As the stated reasoning by some news organizations goes, since most racists say they’re not racist (hence the popularity of the terms “I’m not a racist but” or “I’m the least racist person anybody is going to meet”) news organizations can only go by their word and not assume what’s in their hearts. Hence letting “critics” call them racists.

But as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan put it in her concise response to the coverage of Trump’s latest racist tweets, journalism organizations have an obligation to “embrace direct language and clear framing of important issues.” That includes racist rhetoric that's currently eating the country alive.

There’s nothing CNN, MSNBC, broadcast news organizations and mainstream publications can do to please Trump voters and Republican enablers. All of these organizations steadily slid rightward in their coverage over the past two and a half decades, and they’re still perceived as having a liberal bias.

Trump knows this. He is also aware that nothing irks racists more than witnessing someone declare demonstrably racist acts of racism to be racist. Thus, he is using this storm as a distraction while pressing his actual strategy of painting Democrats generally and Omar, Tlaib, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez specifically, as he said during his “Made in America” statements, as “socialists, definitely. As to whether to not they’re communists [he said, quoting Sen. Lindsey Graham] I would think they might be.” He also revived the lie accusing Omar of "talking about how great Al Qaeda is," which he first circulated in April via fabricated video juxtaposing a remark by Omar, taken out of context, with footage from 9/11. (A number of outlets did check Trump on this falsehood.)

But the nugget meant both for his assembled guests and his base came after that rhetoric: “We just hit 27,000-plus on the Dow ...  The fact is, if I would’ve lost, the stock market would crash …People will lose their money.  They’ll lose their wealth. You’ll have a crash like you’ve never seen before.  And I’m really good at this stuff. I know what I’m talking about.” Again, this earned applause from his guests, who may or may not have been eating cake.

Asked about the ICE raids announced to have taken place over the weekend, Trump declared them to be “very successful,” stating, “We’ve been removing MS-13 by the thousands during my administration."

These blips are worth paying attention to, because they’re the arguments that on-the-fence Trump voters will use to justify the racism or, worse, to deny Trump is racist at all. But we’re not seeing much of that. Nor were there many attempts to fact check the statements in the moment about MS-13, or even call Trump on his fantasy about his ability to control and predict the stock market, which is akin to a leader claiming to control the weather.

In failing to check these lies and cycling through useless debates over whether a racist tweet definitely proves Trump is a racist, media organizations fell into the distraction trap and failed to serve the public. But it did, however, serve Trump’s campaign agenda of steering the conversation away from substantive examinations of policy and freshening up his brand by manipulating the media and further dividing the country. By establishing the Democrats’ brand as "communists, maybe," and the media as dithering reactionaries, Trump’s outrageous racism appears strong and decisive, American made. A lot of people love it, by the way.

News organizations must now figure out how to contend with these intentional set-ups, these camera-ready controversies in service of Trump 2020 cloaked as newsworthy events.

Notably O’Donnell ended her first outing as CBS News’ new anchor by citing Edward R. Murrow’s legacy at the network, establishing that Murrow set the standard she and CBS are seeking to meet. And she offered this quote of Murrow’s:  “There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

Trump’s public demonstrations of extremism may be news, but since his own racism is not, it’s time to vigorously and plainly interrogate what’s behind them — not by hiding behind what “critics” say, but by voicing critical thought based in fact and truth. Use the arsenal Murrow was speaking of in service of the people, not for one man seeking re-election.

Meanwhile, I'm just going to leave this handy sketch from Samantha Bee's "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner" special right here for future reference, and to save all of us the unnecessary drama over the journalistic ethics of calling out racism.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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