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National Public Radio did something a bit unusual Monday morning: It got ahead of a lot of news outlets and used the word racist to describe Donald Trump's tweets telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back where they came from. NPR and the Associated Press were among the first major news organizations to say it straight, without any of that "racially tinged" or "what many Democrats call racist" framing. Good for you, NPR!

Then, on Wednesday, the network took its high ground and squashed that sucker flat, running an opinion piece taking issue with the newsroom's decision, but also framing it so badly that it gave the impression NPR is actually chasing after some bogus dream of objectivity and neutrality. Kind of hard to believe a radio network could be so bad at communication, but we are talking about NPR here.

The opinion piece, by NPR VP for newsroom training and diversity Keith Woods, is all over the place, insisting that keeping a "dispassionate distance" between facts and value judgments is the "fragile line that separates the profession from the rancid, institution-debasing cesspool that is today's politics."


It is precisely because journalism is given to warm-spit phrases like "racially insensitive" and "racially charged" that we should not be in the business of moral labeling in the first place. Who decides where the line is that the president crossed? The headline writer working today who thinks it's "insensitive" or the one tomorrow who thinks it's "racist?" Were we to use my moral standards, the line for calling people and words racist in this country would have been crossed decades ago. But that's not what journalists do. We report and interview and attribute.

Ah, but Woods insists he's not a believer in the mythical quality of "objectivity," no, not at all.

I came into the profession 40 years ago to tear down the spurious notion of objectivity used to protect a legacy of sexism, xenophobia and white supremacy. The better ideals of truth telling, accountability, fairness, etc. are what give journalism its power, while the notion of "objectivity" has been used to obscure and excuse the insidious biases we do battle with today.

OK, that's good, so far as it goes, but so much of the rest of the piece seems to yearn for "objectivity," or something like it:

What's at stake is journalism's embattled claim to be the source of credible news grounded in the kind of deep, fair reporting that exposes injustice and holds powerful people to account. It may be satisfying to call the president's words, or the president himself, racist, given the attacks tweeted from his bully app and so often aimed at our profession. But at what cost?

The danger, Woods says, is that by calling a racist statement racist, serious media outlets risk turning into cable TV news, a morass of yelling and opinion, and all their credibility will be lost. OK, fair enough, don't be CNN, and certainly don't ask Richard Spencer what he thinks of Trump's tweets.

About the best that can be said of Woods's argument is that he wants reporting that makes clear Trump is saying very racist shit without openly calling it racist shit. After quoting the full text of Trump's Sunday tweets telling the congresswomen to go back to their shithole countries, Woods says,

His words mirror those of avowed racists and xenophobes that date back to the birth of this country. Was that moral judgment, my last sentence? I would argue no. I'd call it context, and it doesn't require my opinion, just a basic understanding of history.

So don't use "labels," he says, "do journalism," and it'll be clear that Trump's racism is exactly that, without having to use that word. We disagree, but it's a valid enough argument, and definitely not a brainless call for both-siderism, although the subtlety of the point was subsequently lost on people who saw only the piece's headline, "Report On Racism, But Ditch The Labels."

That headline is just part of how NPR screwed the pooch. While an editor's note preceding Woods's essay points out that "NPR this week has described the language in President Trump's tweets about a group of Democratic congresswomen as 'racist,'" the network doesn't really go beyond that to make clear that Woods is actually the dissenting position, which is why lots of people on Twitter came away with the impression that, editor's note or no, NPR was backing away from calling Trump's tweets racist.

In the "Code Switch" podcast Woods's essay accompanied, NPR Standards and Practices editor Mark Memmott makes a clear, forceful argument for why he decided to have NPR's newsroom use the word racist. Ironically, he cited nearly the same thing Woods said in his essay: Yeah, let's call the tweets racist because "go back where you came from" is, on its face, "an old racist trope."

But look at that headline. It's all Woods, and not a bit of Memmott. As were the tweets promoting the story. (Subscribers to the podcast series got a different headline, "Oh So Now It's Racist?" but that wasn't as widely promoted on social media).

Nothing in that tweet suggests Woods is actually taking issue with his network's actual practice. Not surprisingly, lots of people wondered why NPR appeared to be going out of its way to avoid calling racism by name.

At least NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, managed to summarize actual NPR policy while relaying the link -- but again, once you hit that link, you have to look for the "play" button to find the perspective that actually prevailed in NPR's reporting. Folkenflik had to point out where to even find the full discussion in a follow-up:

By late afternoon, NPR seemed astonished the headline it had tweeted all over the place was somehow giving people the wrong impression, and issued a clarification:

But that's a big part of the problem with Woods's argument: When it's reduced to a headline, it sure as hell sounds like "let's not stir up controversy with the mean word racism." The reaction to the piece doesn't exactly prove Woods right about the public's ability to see what he says they should be able to figure out.

Particularly because NPR framed the story so very, very clumsily.

[NPR / Guardian / NPR]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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