Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway. In the wake of last week's violent insurrection in the Capitol, some mainstream media outlets are finally coming to terms with what many journalists, especially those of color, have been saying all along. President Trump's rhetoric is dangerous. So dangerous in fact that it incited an insurrection. These warnings have stood in stark contrast with a National Press Corps that has, for much of the past four years, been reluctant to call the president's lies, lies.
Despite Trump's long record of incendiary false racist statements, many journalists have struggled to call him out all in the name of "objectivity" and covering "both sides". That's whether Trump was calling white supremacists in Charlottesville--
President Trump: Very fine people on both sides.
Tanzina: - or referring to the coronavirus as--
President Trump: Kung flu
Tanzina: - or calling the insurrectionists--
President Trump: Very special.
Tanzina: - and telling them--
President Trump: We love you.
Tanzina: At the same time, the media landscape is also different than it was four years ago. While Fox News has continued to dominate television news, we've witnessed the growth of even more extreme pro-Trump outlets like Newsmax, One America News Network, and Sinclair Broadcast Group. These networks, along with social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Parlor, have played a role in radicalizing millions, deepening the divide in the nation. Where do we go from here, and what has the mainstream media learned, and how does it avoid making those mistakes as we move ahead? That's where we begin today.
Matt Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters and Maya King is a politics reporter at Politico and they both join me now. Matt, Maya, thanks for being on the show.
Matt Gertz: Thanks for having me.
Maya King: Hi, thanks for having us
Tanzina: Maya, let's start with you, I guess this is the only way to put this as why did it take a violent insurrection for more journalists to fully come to terms with the danger of Donald Trump?
Maya: That really is the question. It's easy to say. I think that reporters, particularly those of color who had been saying that this president stokes violent behavior are feeling vindicated in this time, but I don't think that's the full picture. We look back at the events in Charlottesville that you mentioned, and I think that there was an element of not taking the threat of white supremacist violence very seriously, because those who were storming Charlottesville were carrying Tiki torches and wearing Hawaiian shirts.
Then between that time, and now we really learned that those themselves were symbols of hatred, and that these movements were only growing more sophisticated and really gaining more manpower from 2017 to 2020. It was only being further stoked again, by the president's words, and by his calling into question the results of the election and the media, as it continued to grow and mature, I think was having a hard time actually giving credence to just how serious this threat was.
Now, here we are about eight days after one of the most violent domestic terror attacks I think this country has ever seen, and it's forced the media to really be more aggressive in calling out, calling these things, what they are, calling the president and the things that he says racist and calling his lies lies. These were things that we were once very uncomfortable with doing, that now, in order to get the story right. I think even to make sure that people's lives are protected and that they understand the scope of the situation, it's something that we absolutely have had to do. It's just now feeling like it was a bit delayed because we also know that this president has less than a week left in his term.
Tanzina: So many things about the reaction to what's happening feel delayed right now, Maya. That's a great word for it. Matt, I'm curious about, we're hearing this conversation is happening, as Maya pointed out, just days before the president leaves office, why has it taken so long? I think about my own experiences in reporting on race, but I also recall my former colleague, Farai Chideya, tweeting about her experiences for years as a Black journalist, trying to tell stories about white nationalism and having editors say no. What is the issue here? I mean, was it largely the editors in newsrooms that were uncomfortable with these stories, Matt?
Matt: It's a great question. Clearly journalists of color and Jewish journalists have been much more focused on the real danger posed by Donald Trump than others in political journalism. I think part of it is the degree to which the reporters have skin in the game, so to speak, the degree to which they are personally endangered by the prospect of the rising power of white nationalism, and of authoritarianism in the United States. I think absent that direct risk, too many journalists were willing to turn away from what was happening around them.
I think another part of it is ideological commitment to the notion that there are two sides to every question in American politics and they are both equally valid. There's one on the left and one on the right, and you need to go get comments from both sides and put them into your article, and the truth is somewhere in between. I think that that has historically been a very powerful force in political journalism, and a real, a motivating force, and that as the asymmetric radicalization of the Republican party took place, I think journalists were often slow to realize what was happening and react to it.
Tanzina: I struggle with that, even though Matt, I know that you're accurate in saying that, and Maya, I'm struggling with that because it wasn't all journalists who said that this was a problem, who pointed out that these issues are serious and should be taken seriously. What does this tell us, Maya, about news media leadership over the past couple of years? Because at the end of the day, everyone in this conversation knows you could have a great idea, but unless it's green lit by a higher ranking journalist, it won't be printed or make it to the airwaves.
Maya: I think that we can look back on some of the editorial decisions that were made, especially before 2020, where we absolutely had to be more aggressive in calling out lies, and calling out the legacy of systemic racism, that there was almost I think this move to tiptoe around a lot of these issues. You're right, these stories are so important to be told, but if you can't get them green lit, then they're good as nothing. It's hard to even feel comfortable enough to pitch these really important stories.
One change though, that I think I've observed, was in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, hours after insurrectionists stormed the capital, we saw a lot of stories that highlighted the double standard in policing, and in how police and law enforcement reacted to the white nationalist mob that actually stormed the Capitol and put many elected officials' lives in danger. There was a lot less force used there then over the summer of protests with Black Lives Matter and predominantly Black activists that were in the streets calling out these very same issues.
I think that, I'm not saying that four years ago, this might not have been called out and that there might not have been these stories told, but the immediacy with which they were called out and the ways that newsrooms immediately were able to recognize this double standard, I think reflects a level of growth there. I think it also reflects the larger platform that Black activists have had in the past year. Because that's another group of people who have absolutely been calling this out, and calling out the president's words as dangerous, and a reflection of what could potentially harm their own communities, but they didn't really have as large of a platform in the news media to really be able to, be used as sources and be able to tell these stories really until very recently. The summer of protests last year really brought to light a lot of these issues.
Tanzina: Matt, I'd love, if you could give us a sense of the arc, the narrative arc that we've seen in terms of news outlets, at least mainstream news outlets, that cover or have attempted to cover white supremacy and the growth of these groups of insurrectionists and militias on the ground. Initially, I feel like at very, very early on, there were almost flattering profiles of some of the folks who were leading the "alt-right". How has that evolution happened over the course of the past four years?
Matt: I think that what we have seen is a growing understanding among journalists that the violent white nationalists who have gained increasing numbers, and gained increasing influence over the course of Donald Trump's administration are really dangerous and that they are directly connected, and in frightening ways, to this administration, I think there's been a lot of really good work done about the relationships that Stephen Miller, a top White House advisor, has to some of these groups.
I think in the early days of the administration, there was this sense that these white nationalists were a joke, and not really something to worry about, but as we've seen more and more right-wing violence over the last four years, from Charlottesville, to the El Paso mass shooting to the Trump superfan bomber in 2018, to the insurrection at the Capitol, that has been, I think, impossible to maintain. You are now seeing a much more centering of the notion that this is a real and growing threat.
Tanzina: Maya, what do you see as far as the coverage itself? I mean, do you think it's gotten better over the course of the past couple of years?
Maya: I think we have improved and I think a large reason why is because we've prioritized a number of the stories that you mentioned earlier that might have actually been passed over or not viewed as very serious, or even as political stories. I think, of course, we have a long way to go. I would love to see more profiles of Black voters and Native American voters, and Asian Americans, over, I think a special attention to a number of the insurrectionists are white nationalists.
I think that we've done a very good job of understanding this president and the kind of hateful rhetoric that he stokes and the tensions around race that he stokes, but we haven't yet really dug into understanding the impact of these policies, and of these words on the communities that he's targeting. It's, of course, a very long process, but I'm much more encouraged now than I was even this time last year.
Tanzina: Of course this also turns the spotlight on a newsroom "diversity", Matt. How have newsrooms done on that? We'll get into this more the next segment, but we've got about a minute left now.
Matt: I think we are seeing a sort of generational shift in the media. We are seeing more hirings of journalists of color in the entry level positions. I think it'll take some time for those journalists to move up the pipeline, until we see more of that at the top editorial ranks. It is a long-term process, I would say.
Tanzina: Matt, let's talk a little bit about the explosion in conservative and right-wing media. How have the messages coming from those media, and I'm thinking particularly Fox and other outlets that we mentioned at the top, really influenced what we saw last week?
Matt: I think the purpose of the right-wing media is to keep the Republican base in a constant state of frothing rage. It's most powerful and prominent figures are constantly warning their audiences that liberals are trying to destroy them and their way of life. This apocalyptic rhetoric, this unhinged fear-mongering is what creates their audiences. It's what keeps them coming back for more. It's what makes the people who practice this sort of rhetoric rich and famous.
In the week since the election, hosts at Fox News, and OAN, and Newsmax, have been lying to their viewers. They've been telling them the election was rigged and stolen. That Donald Trump was the rightful president, that there had been effectively a coup by the Democrats against him. It's been a real constant drumbeat across all of these networks, and across the platforms of their colleagues in right-wing media. If you tell enough people that, some of them are going to believe you, and they're going to take action. I think that's what we saw last week.
According to NBC News, Ashli Babbitt, who's the writer who was killed while trying to storm the House chamber was a "loyal Fox news watcher", according to thousands of tweets to Fox news hosts. She then descended through the right wing echo chamber into QAnon conspiracy theorists. This stuff is toxic and dangerous. It's really prevalent across a vast swath of right-wing media, and it does lead to this violent insurrection and terrorism.
Tanzina: Maya, what about you? How has the tone of conservative media in your mind really made our jobs in many ways more difficult because really we're confronting misinformation and disinformation on a daily basis at this point.
Maya: I think that's exactly where it makes our jobs a little bit more difficult because one, you have the growing number of Americans who are watching these news channels and believing a lot of the mis and disinformation that's being put forth. Then our job of course, is to try to go back and correct the record, or at least present the most accurate form of information. It's really difficult. I think, when you're also going against a White House that is continually discounting a lot of the things that we're reporting to try to correct the record, or to present the most accurate picture, even if that makes the president or his administration look less than favorable.
I think it gets at the larger difficulty and the opportunities for growth really in this news environment now. We've had to be confronted with lies, and we've had to, I think a number of political journalists do the really uncomfortable thing of saying that the President of the United States is lying about something. That it's endangering a number of Americans through this lack of truth. It's forced us really, again, to revisit this idea of what the truth is, and make sure that we're presenting the clearest picture possible, but the rise of mis and disinformation, I think really cannot be overstated here and especially its danger and what it causes. I think we can look at the events of January 6th as one of the more extreme manifestations of that.
Tanzina: Matt, what about journalists who don't say things, who allow-- and I can tell you on this show, we have very specific requirements as far as what's allowed to be aired in terms of some things that are truthful versus things that aren't truthful. I think of journalist's role to call out the lies and I've seen some journalists struggle with that and allowing people to have a point of view, but not really challenging that point of view in the name of "fairness".
Matt: I think this has been a problem throughout the Trump administration in particular, because we know that President Trump is a liar. We know that he lies constantly on issues, big and small. It is far beyond the casual falsehoods that you see from a typical politician. It's really the heart of his political project. It's trying to create this alternate reality fantasy world, in which he is the source of truth, and the media and everyone else are the ones telling the lies.
I think journalists had a great deal of trouble adjusting to that. I think there was a lot of good reporting that happened on the individual lies, but the degree to which they were really willing to incorporate that, the fact that the president was a liar into their daily work, to really consider before writing a headline that amplified what the president had said, whether or not what he had said was true or not, was a challenge for them, and one, I think, that was not to their credit over the course of the last four years.
Tanzina: Matt Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters and Maya King is a politics reporter at Politico. Matt and Maya, thanks for joining us.
Maya: Thanks for having me.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
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