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The press can’t afford to ignore violent right-wing rhetoric
If we lose our capacity for outrage, we’ll lose everything
In November 1922, the New York Times published its first-ever mention of Adolf Hitler. The mention occurred before Hitler attempted a coup, served a ridiculously lenient sentence and went on to demolish his nation’s democracy, start a world war and murder millions. This first Times article was about Hitler as an up-and-coming rabble-rouser.
The Times said at the time that “several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers.”
So, nothing much to worry about.
Today, too many journalists are downplaying the violent words of another fascist.
When Donald Trump calls for shooting shoplifting suspects, says the nation’s top general deserves to be executed and accuses immigrants at the border of “poisoning the blood of our country,” many news outlets treat the comments as routine developments, just “Trump being Trump.”
You can see why they might do that. After all, a common definition of news is something that doesn’t happen all the time. And Trump’s fascist rhetoric does happen all the time. Trump normalizes depravity. If journalists let him.
Belatedly, though, news outlets are feeling more pressure to stop soft-pedaling Trump’s hate speech.
Last week, Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi wrote a story headlined, “Trump’s violent rhetoric is getting muted coverage by the news media.” Citing the views of Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London, the article noted “a tendency for the news media to ignore or downplay statements once considered shocking but which now, due to repetition, are taken more for granted.”
Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, explained on Twitter/X how difficult it is for news media to weigh Trump’s comments and actions properly: “Flooding the zone breaks the alert system. Keep warning (front page news!) and you can sound hysterical, out of touch. Stay cool (“that's just how he talks...”) and you risk normalizing the threat. There's no good answer, except for finding the right tone.”
The New York Times weighed in too, with a story headlined, “Trump Said Shoplifters Should Be Shot, Part of a String of Violent Remarks.” It was a catch-up story for the Times, which had ignored Trump’s comments in its news pages for days. The story ran four days after Trump’s “shoot shoplifters” remark and 11 days after Trump suggested that Gen. Mark Milley deserved death.
The concern over media underplaying Trump’s comments is welcome, but it may be disastrously late. Alarm bells should have sounded loudly in every newsroom last December when Trump complained on Truth Social about nonexistent 2020 election fraud and added: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
That’s right. An ex-president who leads a major political party – the party of Lincoln – called for terminating the Constitution. Yes, terminating it.
A lot of journalists were unimpressed. The New York Times ran a story about it in print two days later on Page 13, and a lot of other news outlets were almost as bored by Trump’s call to throw out the Constitution.
Dan Froomkin, who runs the Press Watch website, says news outlets must aggressively expose Trump’s radical comments. But he goes further, arguing that “when he says something that illustrates his continued descent into fascist rhetoric, the real news is not so much the particular thing he said, it’s that he said it and that Republican leaders and Republicans generally still aren’t renouncing him.”
This is an important point. Reporters need to force Trump-supporting politicians to answer for his comments. When they say, “I didn’t see that,” read them the quote or show them the video. If they say, “What I’m focusing on is the border …” interrupt them and say, “That’s not what I asked you about. What do you think of Trump’s comments?” And if they don’t answer, ask again. And again.
Many Republicans are echoing Trump’s rants. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona wrote in his newsletter that “in a better society … General Milley would be hung.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential candidate, has promised to “start slitting the throats” of federal workers on Day One. He’s also called for shooting undocumented immigrants “stone cold dead” if they cross the border with a backpack, saying they should be considered drug smugglers subject to execution without trial.
The constant parade of traitorous and violent comments is exhausting. But if we lose our capacity for outrage, we’ll lose everything.
The tricky thing for news outlets is that they don’t want to get ahead of the public on that. If the public isn’t angry about something, journalists can feel foolish and out of touch when they make a big deal out of it. And a large segment of the public seems incapable of being offended these days. After all, a politician was caught on tape bragging about grabbing the private parts of a woman he just met and then he won the presidential election anyway.
Despite this, journalists need to stand up for standards of decency. They need to do more to force Americans who vote Republican reflexively to face up to the specifics of how awful Trump is.
Journalists need to stop saying, in effect, that right-wing behavior is “not so genuine or violent as it sounded.” It is, and it’s going to get worse unless we confront it now.