An accusation in search of an argument

We’ve commented before on the shoddy and hyper-partisan writing of Margaret Sullivan, a media critic for the Washington Post. Among other shortcomings, Sullivan seems incapable of making anything resembling an argument.

Today, Sullivan defends the practice in news stories of labeling President Trump’s utterances “racist.” She calls this a “service to the truth” (quotation from headline in paper edition).

But one searches Sullivan’s column in vain for an argument in support of her claim that Trump’s comment about the four congressional rads (or anything else Trump has ever said) is racist. Arguments aren’t Sullivan’s thing. Name-calling is.

As I argued here, Trump’s latest comment isn’t racist. The president didn’t suggest that the four congressional rads leave America because of their race or national origin. He offered the suggestion because of their hatred, as he sees it (and I do too), of America.

We know this because there are other minority members of Congress who oppose Trump’s policies. The president did not suggest, and has never suggested, that they leave America.

Even if one disagrees with my argument, the problem of hurling the “racist” charge around in news articles is obvious. The charge will almost always be subject to a reasonable counter-argument. (Court cases alleging racism often require extensive briefing and/or multi-day trials to resolve).

Some publications avoided the direct charge of racism by saying that Trump’s statement was perceived (or was widely considered) racist. This approach won’t do either, unless the reporter provides the rationale supporting the “perception” and the argument for denying its validity.

Paul Fahri, another Post media critic, writes an article similar to Sullivan’s. But Fahri’s is much better. He takes us behind the scenes of his newspaper, and explains how the Post made the editorial decision to call Trump’s statement “racist”:

“The Post traditionally has been cautious in the terminology it uses to characterize individuals’ statements, because a news organization’s job is to inform its readers as dispassionately as possible,” Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a statement. “Decisions about the terminology we use are made only after a thorough discussion among senior editors. We had that discussion today about President Trump’s use of a longstanding slur against African Americans and other minorities.

The ‘go back’ trope is deeply rooted in the history of racism in the United States. Therefore, we have concluded that ‘racist’ is the proper term to apply to the language he used Sunday.”

Here, at last, we come to an argument. Trump employed a “trope” that’s “rooted in the history of racism.” Therefore, his statement is racist.

But Baron’s argument is so weak that it looks more like an excuse. In American history, the “go back” trope, when racist, was employed as a demand that all (or most) immigrants of a certain race, ethnicity, religion, or class return to their place of origin. Trump suggested no such thing. He suggested only that four extreme malcontents “go back.”

Thus, his statement was more in the tradition of the “America, love it or leave it” trope, which is rooted in patriotism (albeit an overzealous kind) and has nothing to do with racism.

Why doesn’t the Post label Ilhan Omar an Islamist extremist and/or a communist? Her critique of U.S. foreign policy invokes tropes rooted in these ideologies. Yet, Baron would never dream of permitting these labels to be used against Omar.

Why not? Because she is on the Post’s side in its unrelenting struggle to discredit and topple Donald Trump.

The Post picked its side, with a vengeance. The labeling of its protagonists and antagonists in the struggle — as well as much of the paper’s news reporting — flows from this decision.

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