MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Should Congressman Steve King's comments to The New York Times be called racist? As a reminder, last week, King, who is a Republican from Iowa, was quoted by a Times reporter as asking rhetorically "white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization, how did that language become offensive" - end quote. Well, as NPR and other newsrooms have tried to characterize his comments - and I should note on air this week I called them racist - NBC did not. NBC got some blowback this week when it advised its reporters not to use the word racist. They have since reversed course, but we still have some questions, so we have brought in NPR's Gene Demby, who has got some strong views on this, to talk it through. Hi, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise, good to see you.
KELLY: Good to have you with us. OK. What exactly did NBC's guidance to its journalists say?
DEMBY: So NBC's standards editor sent out an email. We know this because the Huffington Post got their hands on it. The email said to, quote, "be careful to avoid characterizing King's remarks as racist. It is OK to attribute to others as in what many are calling racist or something like that." So after this big public outcry on social media over that email, NBC changed tack and said, quote, "it is fair to characterize King's comments as racist and point out that he has a history of racist comments." And, of course, this type of attribution, so-and-so says something that's racist, that's, you know, a pretty common news convention. It's meant to suggest a level of neutrality or distance from the reporter, especially when covering something controversial.
KELLY: Yeah. I think part of this is a desire not to label something. We report what somebody said, and everybody can make up their minds what they think of it...
KELLY: ...Which is why you find a lot of journalists using terms like racially inflammatory or some other euphemism.
DEMBY: Yes. And that's not a new phenomenon. And so the Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman recently outlined this long history of euphemisms like this, like racially charged and racially inflammatory and racial undercurrents...
KELLY: Racially insensitive.
DEMBY: ...Racially insensitive, right - that are used by news organizations reporting on some sort of racial controversy. Glickman wrote that this really started to pick up steam in the 1950s. He noted one particularly tortured example from the Associated Press that called bombings on the then recently desegregated campus of the University of Alabama as, quote, "racially tinged explosions."
KELLY: And to situate this, you said the 1950s this started to change. Of course, that's when the civil rights movement was gaining steam.
DEMBY: Exactly, exactly. Phillip Atiba Goff, who is a psychologist we have on Code Switch a lot who studies racism, he said that one of the most important consequences of the civil rights movement was to create these new taboos around racial animus. So being a racist or at the time being prejudiced became a bad thing. And so reporters who were trying to stay, quote, "objective" were playing it safe by not characterizing the people that they were talking about as racist or prejudiced. And so to get deeper into this idea, if you primarily understand racism as a kind of, like, illness of the soul - right? - a moral failing, you can't use that term unless you can sort of characterize what's happening in people's hearts. We as journalists can't really do that. But that's not the only way to understand something as racist, right?
KELLY: Sure. Well, I mean, what would be another?
DEMBY: Well, a lot of people understand racism as just a structural reality, particularly people of color. If the United States was built on this history of ethnic cleansing of Native American people and the enslavement of black people and then all these subsequent arrangements flow out of those things, then racism and white supremacy is just, like, part of the source code of American life. It doesn't need to be sort of discerned from people's souls. And these two understandings of racism, those things are butting up against each other when we're using this language in our news coverage.
KELLY: So circle back to where we started and the controversy this week over Steve King and whether to call his comments racist. What do you think?
DEMBY: Well, one thing we should say here is that it matters a lot that mainstream newsrooms are still predominately white, right? And so that understanding shapes a lot of the guidance that newsrooms get, you know. And I think newsrooms should be much more comfortable just saying racist, and I would argue that Steve King's quote in The Times, which is a very literal defense of white supremacy, does not warrant this level of controversy. It's very straightforwardly racist.
KELLY: We've been talking with NPR's Gene Demby from our Code Switch podcast. Thanks so much.
DEMBY: Thank you, Mary Louise.
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