Oh So Now It's Racist? This week, an argument about what to call President Trump's rhetoric. NPR editors Mark Memmott and Keith Woods offer different ideas for how news organizations should try to stay credible.
NPR logo

Oh So Now It's Racist?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/742448398/742481310" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Oh So Now It's Racist?

Oh So Now It's Racist?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/742448398/742481310" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Just a heads up - there's about to be some foul language in this episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Why don't you go back to where you came from? I've heard that one a few times - so uninspired. It's so played and so racist. But as a journalist, I've been trained to be very wary when it comes to using the R-word - racist - in my stories. And this is something we've discussed at length in our January of 2018 episode on the CODE SWITCH podcast called The R-Word In The Age Of Trump. Let's listen to some of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAT CHOW: I'm Kat Chow, and I want to play you a voicemail I got from a man named Paran Lamb (ph).

PARAN LAMB: Hi, Ms. Chow. I heard your reporting on President Trump's remarks, and it was very bad reporting.

CHOW: A few weeks ago, I got this email from my editor asking for a short news piece about Trump's language during a bipartisan Oval Office meeting about immigration. You know exactly what I'm talking about - S***hole-Gate, also known as that time the president of the United States, Donald Trump, allegedly called Haiti and some African nations s***holes or s***-houses. My assignment was to talk about how this fits in with all those other comments he's made about people of color and immigrants - cool, lots to choose from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: NPR's Kat Chow reports this was one of many instances of the president making racially charged remarks.

CHOW: This isn't the first time Trump has made denigrating remarks about people of color and immigrants. According to news reports last year, Trump described Haitian immigrants as having AIDS and said that, if the U.S. accepted Nigerian immigrants, they wouldn't, quote, "go back to their huts."

And just months ago, after multiple hurricanes tore through Puerto Rico, leaving many there in need of aid, Trump insinuated they were lazy. He tweeted that Puerto Ricans want everything to be done for them. In 2015, when calling for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, Trump described Mexicans as rapists. The president tweeted that he never said anything derogatory about Haitians in Thursday's meeting.

Kat Chow, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: The listener who called to complain about Kat's story, they said she should have just used the word racist - not denigrating, not derogatory, not racially charged - racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's on vacation. Let's fast-forward to July of 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LAKSHMI SINGH: House Democrats are expected to take up a resolution today condemning President Trump's recent racist remarks.

MERAJI: Wait - did you just hear what I heard?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SINGH: President Trump's recent racist remarks.

MERAJI: That's NPR newscaster Lakshmi Singh using the R-word to describe President Trump's tweet directed at four Congress members of color - you know the one - the one where he tweeted they should, quote, "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," unquote.

Interesting, because if you heard the conversation we had in our episode from January 2018, The R-Word In The Age Of Trump, NPR's standards and practices editor Mark Memmott told us why NPR journalists didn't use racist when it came to the president's other comments - you know, s***hole countries - and there's a long list.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: We don't tell people what to think; we give them the information they need to decide what they think.

MERAJI: Stick to the facts, give listeners context, and they can decide for themselves if things are racist or not. Well, we've invited Mark back on the show to tell us why we're using racist in this instance, and this time he's joined by Keith Woods, NPR's senior vice president of newsroom training and diversity.

KEITH WOODS, BYLINE: I'm in this profession because I see it as a vehicle for fighting for some of the things that are most important to me, including racial justice.

MERAJI: To say racist or not to say racist, a sequel - after the break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And we're back with Mark Memmott, senior supervising editor for standards and practices. According to NPR's ethics handbook, Mark is responsible for cultivating an ethical culture here at NPR News. And Keith Woods is vice president of newsroom training and diversity at NPR. He heads up NPR's diversity strategy and is co-editor of "The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting On Race And Ethnicity." Hi, Mark.

MEMMOTT: Hello.

MERAJI: Hi, Keith.

WOODS: Hi, Shereen.

MERAJI: Welcome back to CODE SWITCH to both of you.

MEMMOTT: Thank you.

WOODS: Glad to be here.

MERAJI: All right, I think we've all heard by now that President Trump tweeted that certain members of Congress should, quote, "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," unquote. And we can add this to the president's list of incendiary, racially charged, racially tinged, racially loaded language specifically aimed at people of color. Or can I just say racist - Mark?

MEMMOTT: Well, we have come to the conclusion in the newsroom that what the president tweeted was racist language, so you could say that.

MERAJI: Oh, OK - racist language. And refresh our memory, Mark - what is our policy around using the word racist?

MEMMOTT: We use it when it fits - that's what I told CODE SWITCH in January 2018; that's the way we still feel. In other words, we take each case on its own and talk over what's happened, what's been said, what's been written, what's been tweeted. It's a heavy word. It's not one that we use on very many occasions. We use it sparingly. In fact, this is one of the first times we've used it in this context.

MERAJI: What was different about this context? Because, you know, he's said many other things before - there's a list. The last time we had you on he allegedly called certain African nations s***hole countries, as well as Haiti.

MEMMOTT: I think the difference this time was it was a tweet aimed at four specific individuals, four women of color, using a old racist trope - you know, go back to your home country - very blatantly. And we wanted, just to be clear, that it wasn't just racially charged, racially inflamed whatever; we wanted to make clear that that is an old racist phrase that was reused.

MERAJI: And Keith, you actually disagree with this decision. Can you tell us why?

WOODS: I do, and I say that, if you were applying the standards that we applied to what the president said Sunday, I can't think of how many times we ought to have referred to the language as racist, using that standard. And my overall problem is that we don't really have a standard; even what Mark articulated just now is very specific to this event. And I don't know - I mean, if we had a policy that said, when the thing is directed at specific human beings who are people of color, and it borrows from an old racist trope, that that's the moment that we call it racist, I could live with a policy that said something as specific as that.

But journalism has been both the perpetrator of racist language itself and covered matters of race that could have easily been called racist, by my standards of racism, for decades. I think that the problem here is that words like racist come with human judgment. They are not just descriptive; there's a moral judgment that sits behind them. And we are - we do not, as a society or as a medium, apply them evenly or with any logic at all.

And I'm not arguing this because we are inconsistent; I'm arguing this because we sit on a very fragile credibility as a profession, different from every other profession out there. And that credibility rests in part on the view of the public that we are maintaining some distance - our judgments, our morals - some distance from the things that we're covering.

MERAJI: Mark, this idea of using racist as moral judgment, or the fact that the audience will assume that we are making a moral judgment by using the term racist, rather than using the term racist as a way to describe a pattern of harm inflicted on a group of people - did you take that into consideration when the NPR news leadership made the decision to use racist in this case?

MEMMOTT: Yes, we certainly do factor in all those things, and we also factor in everything that Keith just talked about as well - that journalists are very uncomfortable sometimes in making these kinds of judgments. That said, editors are humans who make judgments all the time. You know, we judge whether language might be offensive. We judge whether the sounds that you may hear on the radio are disturbing, and we warn audiences about them. And we try to be factual when we reach the conclusions about such language.

And this was a case where, you know, we weighed all those things. And I would just suggest that it isn't necessarily a moral judgment to identify that this language mirrors or echoes - or whichever word we want to use - a racist trope.

WOODS: I don't see why journalists, in the leads and headlines of their stories, have to be the ones to call it that. And I'll just make this point, Shereen - I watch the news and listen to the news, and I read the Twitter-verse (ph) every day. I think that there are some imbecilic things that are tweeted out. I think there are some pathetic things that are tweeted out. I think there are some despicable things that are tweeted out. Why shouldn't I be able to say those things, given this standard?

MERAJI: Hmm.

WOODS: Hmm.

MEMMOTT: Hmm.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

WOODS: I think it's all based on judgment. The president said something; our job is to tell people that he said it. Some people thought immediately that the thing he said was racist. Our job is to tell them that people thought it was racist. Some people found that it was racism based on some contextual history, and we ought to tell them that. We can do all of those things, including putting the word racist in the headline in quotation marks because somebody else used it and not have to be the ones who have made the judgment.

MEMMOTT: And I would make the case - and I agree with everything that you said - that we should only do it when - the rarest of occasions, when we've reached the conclusion, based on the evidence and the context that we have marshaled and all those things that you just mentioned, that it adds up to, in this case, racist language; not that we're saying the president himself is a racist but that the language he used.

WOODS: Well, look - I mean, I could - I think I could get you, Mark, to agree with me, objectively looking at the very same information, that something that we were reading was imbecilic. And my question is, if it's beyond a shadow of a doubt in our minds - because we are good editors - that it's imbecilic, why shouldn't we just say it? And I think we can see clearly why with that word, and I don't see why we can't see it so clearly with a word like racist.

MEMMOTT: The one difference, I think, in this case is just the history of that phrase - why don't you go back where you came from; yeah, go back to your own country - and the specific nature of it and the history of it and the four people that it was aimed at in this case.

WOODS: Again, I would ask, if we looked at some of the utterances of members of Congress, some of the utterances of current candidates for the Democratic nomination, we could find even less ambiguous language, or at least equally tied to racist tropes in the past that we have opted not to call racist.

MEMMOTT: I agree. If I can go back to an old-fashioned newsroom concept, though, that when the president of the United States says something, states something, writes something, that's different.

WOODS: News - that's news.

MEMMOTT: It's big news.

WOODS: Sure.

MERAJI: Look - as journalists, we've labeled the Jim Crow-era as racist. We've referred to blackface as racist. We've called slavery a racist institution. So I'm wondering, if 50 years from now, you know, journalists are going to look back at all of this and call these remarks racist, and it will be nothing.

WOODS: Well, in the news cycle, it'll be 50 minutes from now. But I think, like everything else in the language that we deploy, journalistically, there are places where there is no ambiguity. Each of these pieces of language that we use both come with consequence and a demand for clarity and the absence of ambiguity.

We can talk about whether slavery wasn't racist if you really wanted to have a legitimate - or try to have a legitimate conversation, then, you know, let's have that conversation. But I think that the urge that we have now, which I believe is motivated by our desire to hit back, to label things and people racist, in the end, is a slope that we will slide down so fast and damage the instrument of journalism, which is one of the few instruments we have to fight exactly this kind of thing.

MEMMOTT: One thing I would say is that nobody I spoke to in the past two days in our newsroom said anything close to wanting to hit back. There was no, we need to hit back at the president. There was - no.

WOODS: My language.

MEMMOTT: Maybe it's in the back of their minds, I don't know. The discussions we had were about the phrase, how we should characterize it, did this cross some sort of line versus others?

MERAJI: I just want to step back and talk about what you said about ambiguous - things being ambiguous. I don't know. I mean, are calling African nations and Haiti s***hole countries or calling Mexicans drug dealers and rapists or, you know, telling four congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from, is that ambiguous, as far as...

WOODS: None of it...

MERAJI: ...Being a racist is concerned?

WOODS: None of it is ambiguous by my standards, Shereen. I have been ready to call stuff racist way longer than you and I have sat down to have this conversation. All I'm saying to you is that your line and my line and tonight's night editor's line and tomorrow's day editor's line is going to be all over the place. And I think we are in a place where we're trying now to be the ones, by our own decisions, to label things one way or the other.

And I just don't believe that we - that journalism has demonstrated through the years that it will call some things one way and other things another way, based on who's doing the work - I don't trust journalism to get that right.

MEMMOTT: One thing I would say in response would be that, yes, there may be some in the newsroom who would push to label someone as a racist. There may be many in the newsroom who will say, no, we absolutely, positively can't do that. That's why we have editors who are talking through these things, and it's somewhat like - what do they say about the Senate? That it's the saucer that cools the tea or coffee or whatever it is - I remember what that expression is. But it's the editors that will be responsible for making sure we don't stray too far from the principles that you're outlining right there.

WOODS: Yeah. Well, the saucer doesn't cool the tea very often today, and some of that is because things have slipped - practices, standards, decisions, traditions slipped. I'm fighting to try to hold one up - that's all (ph).

MEMMOTT: As we all are.

MERAJI: Do we care more about congresspeople than we do a whole group of people - Mexicans, for example, who were called rapists and drug dealers by the president - when we decide that this particular comment is racist versus the ones that came before?

MEMMOTT: That's interesting, and the short answer obviously should be, no, we don't care more or less about any one particular group of people. Going back to what then-new candidate Trump said in in 2015, one thing I could just say is it was just so new I don't think we and other newsrooms were quite prepared to handle that kind of language from a candidate and weren't quite sure, as we applied our thinking and our standards, where we would come down on it. In retrospect, maybe we should have made a different call.

WOODS: Well, again, I'm trying to find the bottom in where are we willing to go with this, right? So part of this assumes that journalism has to have a word before the word tweet in this sentence, and I reject that idea first.

But let's talk about policies, Shereen. Let's talk about any number of the policies that the president enacted, beginning when he was sworn in in January of 2017. If we have the need, journalistically, to put a word in front of any of those policies because it is accurately capturing the nature of the policy, why don't we have words like xenophobic or homophobic or whatever the -phobic or -ism is that applies? Do you not think that an objective person looking at some of those policies would conclude reasonably that this was anti-Semitic or that was homophobic or that was xenophobic?

MERAJI: Oh, I would.

WOODS: Well, then why aren't we fighting that battle, too?

MERAJI: Keith, what are the consequences for calling something racist, as a journalism organization?

WOODS: Well, let me answer with a slightly contextualized answer. I do...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

WOODS: I'm in this profession because I see it as a vehicle for fighting for some of the things that are most important to me, including racial justice and maybe beginning with racial justice; I care about the profession for lots of reasons, but that one above all others. And so how it survives, how it thrives is important to me for those reasons. The stakes to me are about the thriving and surviving of the profession.

When journalism loses the credible ability to say that we are dispassionately trying to tell you what happened, taking as much of our judgment out as we can every day, knowing that we're humans and we can't take it all out, when we start losing that battle, we start losing the battle for the credibility that we have as a profession - that's my stakes.

MERAJI: And Mark, what are the consequences for not calling certain things racist?

MEMMOTT: Obviously, there are moments when journalists have stood up and said, this is not right or here's what this is. You think about, obviously, Edward R. Murrow. You think about Walter Cronkite. I'm not comparing us to those two giants in any way at this point. But there are points when journalists do need to try to very clearly state, this is what this is - not as an opinion but as, you know, marshal your facts.

Yes, we don't like labels in most cases, but if the label fits, don't shy away from it - be clear. And I think that that also lends to our credibility. I do worry about the same things. The irony here is that Keith and I agree on almost everything in most cases, and I think we agree on almost everything here; we just reached a different conclusion, which I find to be the beauty of journalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for standards and practices, and Keith Woods is vice president of newsroom training and diversity at NPR. Thanks to you both for being here again.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome.

WOODS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: If you're looking for other ways to think about this week's news, check out some of our past episodes where we've talked about President Trump's language directed toward people of color. There's our episode called So What If He Said It, where we discussed the spread of white supremacist and white nationalist rhetoric into the mainstream and what that means.

On our Immigration Nation episode, we go into the history of referring to human beings as less than human by using words like infest, invade, animals, and we talk about how using that language shapes the way we treat one another. And of course, there's the first version of this conversation, The R-Word In The Age Of Trump.

That's our show. Follow us on Twitter - we're at @nprcodeswitch. I'm at @radiomirage. Sign up for our newsletter - that's at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. And this episode was edited by Leah Donnella and Sami Yenigun, and it was also produced by Leah and Sami. And a big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kumari Devarajan, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Our interns are Michael Paulino and Jess Kung. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Peace.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.