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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Maintaining Objectivity when Confronted by Horror

New York Times Building

New York Times Building

Peter Minowitz

AP Photo - Richard Drew

Peter Minowitz is a professor of political science at Santa Clara University and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

It is appropriate for people who attract the public’s ears and eyes—e.g., journalists, politicians, and scholars—to hammer on the horror of the atrocities perpetrated by manifestly evil men with high-powered firearms. To improve the prospects for tolerance and nonviolence, however, “opinion leaders” must also cherish objectivity.

This essay will focus on something that might seem trivial—the wording of a short headline in the New York Times. That headline, however, generated a huge furor in which several highly placed individuals betrayed the public’s trust.

The August 5, 2019 print headline, “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism,” capped a Times article about the ten-minute speech President Trump delivered after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton. Accuracy is the premiere virtue of journalism, and the headline worked very well as a summary of the speech. The headline was flawed, however, insofar as the accompanying article, in addition to quoting and summarizing the speech, emphasized its failure to promote “broad gun control measures.” Newspapers and magazines often change the headlines that initially appear in online publication, and the Times proceeded to offer another headline that was accurate and impressively short: “Assailing Hate, but Not Guns.”[1]

Along the way, Aaron Blake in the Washington Post published an article, “Why the New York Times’s Trump headline was so bad,” which noted that several “high-profile” Twitter users were canceling their subscriptions and that Democratic presidential candidates had joined the assault.

What made the original “so bad”? Blake proceeds to highlight two alleged defects. Here is one of them:

 . . . the rest of his comments suggested that racism was merely a byproduct, rather than the root cause, of the violence. . . . the rest of Trump’s comments suggested this was more about mental illness than racism.

These criticisms are unfair because Trump’s speech denounces racism so strongly. After saying that the El Paso shooter’s manifesto was “consumed by racist hate,” Trump adds this vigorous plea for solidarity:

In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.

Because the “hate” here is wedded to “racism,” Trump’s later attacks on hatred indirectly reinforce the memorable condemnation of racism the speech initially expressed. Additional rejection of racism is implied by Trump’s sending “the condolences of our nation” to President Obrador and “all the people of Mexico” because of the “terrible, terrible thing” that happened in El Paso (he also said that “our hearts are shattered for every family” that was affected). Trump, furthermore, conveyed an ethically indispensable mandate by encouraging us to build a culture that “celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.”

Trump also promised that the FBI will receive whatever it needs to “investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism.” If Trump were suggesting that mental illness is the key problem, the speech’s emphasis on “hate crimes” and “domestic terrorism” would be out of place. Trump’s reliance on strongly moral words such as “evil,” “wicked,” “barbaric,” “monstrous,” and “sinister” further reduces the prominence of mental illness.

Aaron Blake’s second complaint is comparably shaky. He acknowledges how significant it is that Trump spoke properly about “racist violence,” but complains that Trump was “clearing a very low bar that he set himself.” Yes, Trump has issued numerous racially charged statements that warrant severe criticism, but in the recent speech Trump emphatically “urge[d] unity vs. racism.”

I am even more troubled by the headline commentaries issued by several “high profile” Tweeters.

Connie Schultz, a journalism professor married to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, included this in her tweet: “What a betrayal, pretending this president is not the racist we know him to be.” The headline, however, said absolutely nothing about whether Trump is a racist. It merely summarized what he said in a specific speech.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet was even more scathing: “Let this front page serve as a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by—and often relies upon—the cowardice of mainstream institutions.” Such specious allegations might promote “progressive” courage, but they hamper our efforts to comprehend and combat the scourge of racism. Ocasio-Cortez, apparently, took little solace from the fact that the article faulted Trump’s credibility as a “unifier” and highlighted his failure to confront the toxic contributions he has made to hatred and division.

Senator Cory Booker, meanwhile, offered this hyperbole: “Lives literally depend on you doing better, NYT. Please do.” I cannot conceive how the original headline would cause fatalities. And isn’t it possible that some white supremacists who saw the headline experienced a decline in their noxious urges?

These three Tweeters are in effect encouraging the Times, at least when it covers President Trump, to compromise journalistic integrity by using headlines to convey the sorts of condemnations that editorials regularly provide.[2]

In explaining why the Times changed the headline, Executive Editor Dean Baquet said that the initial version “didn’t have enough skepticism or questioning about Trump and his motives, and whether or not he was qualified to call for unity.”[3] I hope I am not the only professor at SCU who would discourage flagship newspapers from using headlines to question the “motives” of prominent speakers—and whether they were “qualified” to make the claims the paper is reporting. Regarding Times and Washington Post coverage, including articles and editorials as well as headlines, Trump supporters are doubtless angrier than are Trump opponents, and I would love to see more of his supporters consult these venerable newspapers.

It is major news when Trump denounces racism and hatred, even though—and also because?—he has done so much to foment them. The first revised headline (“Assailing Hate but Not Guns”) captured the article’s thoughtful comments regarding what Trump said—and didn’t say—about firearms. Nothing Trump might have said about gun control, however, would have done much to reduce violence in the short term. Even the implementation of a typical Democratic proposal for gun control, moreover, is unlikely to produce a rapid plunge in violence: there are almost 400 million privately owned guns in the U.S., including roughly 15 million military-style rifles, and there are tragically many ways to commit mass murder. The pleas for love, unity, peace, and universal human dignity in Trump’s speech might produce much greater short-term benefit. And the allegedly hideous headline (“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism”) could itself contribute.

When analyzing President Trump’s words and deeds, we are obliged to point out all kinds of serious vices, including his failures to acknowledge his prior transgressions. When it comes to headlines and basic reporting, however, accuracy must be a journalist’s prime duty. The flight from logocentrism may occasionally help groups that are marginalized, but doesn’t it also justify our president’s flippant posture toward truth?

[1] The latest iteration, “Trump Condemns White Supremacy but Stops Short of Major Gun Controls,” lacks the concision of the first two, and it doesn’t capture the speech’s focus on violence, hatred, and unity. It is also marred by incoherence (the meaning would be clear if “Proposing” appeared before “Major”).

[2] I worry that the trio would have celebrated a headline like this: “Failing to apologize for or even acknowledge his compulsive racism, xenophobia, and dishonesty, Trump offers insincere pitch for unity and fails abjectly to promote the gun-control measures that are manifestly necessary.”

[3] For extensive reflections by Baquet and several Times staffers, see the transcript of their 75-minute “town hall” meeting on 8/12/19.

Aug 20, 2019

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