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Oct. 11, 2022, 1:49 p.m.
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Do news organizations call racist things racist now? It’s still a mixed bag

Saying Democrats want to give African Americans money as thanks for all the crimes they’ve committed against white people — is that racist? Or still just “racially charged”?

On Saturday, at a Trump-led rally in Nevada for Republican candidates, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville said something really, really racist.

Some people say, well, [Democrats are] soft on crime. They’re not soft on crime. They’re pro-crime. They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that. Bullshit!

That’s one of the more nakedly racist things an elected federal official has claimed in a while: that Democrats in favor of reparations for the descendants of enslaved African Americans actually just want to reward them for their success committing crimes against the sort of people who go to Trump rallies — i.e., white people.

At a much lower level of importance, Tuberville — an ex-football coach whose official Senate website lists his name as “Coach Tommy Tuberville” — also yelled “Bullshit!” into a microphone. That’s the sort of thing politicians used to do significantly less often — and when it did happen, it was nearly always considered newsworthy.

I thought this might be an opportunity for two bits of pulse-taking of the American news media:

  • Over the past decade — and especially after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — news organizations have said repeatedly that it was a time of “racial reckoning” in their line of work. While that term covers a lot of ground — including the diversification of their newsrooms and their sources — one element was that outlets would be more willing to identify racist acts as, well, racist, rather than hiding behind euphemisms like “racially charged” or “controversial” or “widely criticized.” Did news organizations call Tuberville’s racist comments “racist”?
  • American mass media has a long tradition of not printing or broadcasting profanity, expletives, swear words — whatever your term of preference. That norm developed in a time of monopoly or near-monopoly media — one or two newspapers per town, three TV networks — who sought to avoid offending the public; alternative media was always more willing to print those four-letter words. The Internet has destroyed the idea of monopoly news media — other options are always around the corner. Did news organizations share Tuberville’s use of “Bullshit!” with their readers?

You can think of these debates as politically liberal vs. conservative: e.g., liberals are more likely to be willing to label a comment racist than conservatives. Or you can think of them as stylistically liberal vs. conservative: whether 20th-century norms of language use are to be maintained or evolved. Either way, these are both questions where each reporter, editor, and institution had to make an actual decision on how to communicate the news to readers.

So let’s see what decisions they made! I’ll rate each one on a scale of 1 to 10 on what I’ll call a Boldness Quotient, with 1 being (politically? stylistically? culturally?) conservative and 10 being the boldest opposite.1

Just to be clear: I’m not trying to say here that a 10 is always the “correct” score, or that a 1 is always wrong. There’s still room for distinctive institutional approaches to, say, swearing or not swearing at your readers. But I think it’s a potentially useful way to look at a newsroom’s broader thinking.

Politico Playbook: It would be hard to write this in a more seen-it-all, church-of-the-savvy Playbook style:

Speaking at the Nevada rally, Sen. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-Ala.) raised eyebrows with this comment: “They want reparations because they think the people who do the crime are owed that,” he said. “Bullshit!”

“Raised eyebrows”!

I’m imagining what Politico Playbook would have been like during the civil rights movement: Speaking on Raleigh television, JESSE HELMS raised eyebrows with this comment: “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men’s rights.”

Treating overt racism as merely eyebrow-raising earns it a 1 on the Boldness Quotient for race — while printing the expletive at hand merits a 10.

RACISM: 1   /   PROFANITY: 10

NPR: The broadcaster says the comments “promote a racist narrative,” which is pretty close to calling it flat-out “racist.” But when it came time to swear, NPR opted for “Bull****!”

RACISM: 7   /   PROFANITY: 5

USA Today: “GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville promotes racist narrative about Black people, crime at Trump rally,” reads the headline. The lede says Tuberville “pushed a racist narrative.” No mention of the profanity, euphemistically or otherwise.

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 1

ABC News’ The Note: In the same spirit as Playbook, The Note is a newsletter-born, insider-positioned institution, so it’s not surprising they took a similar “made headlines” tack:

During a rally in Minden, Nevada, on Saturday, Trump echoed his party’s campaign season rhetoric by tearing into Democrats over high inflation and claiming an “invasion” is happening at the southern border. Meanwhile, Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville also joined the event and made headlines over his claims that Democrats are “pro-crime” and that “they want reparation because they think the people that do the crime are owed that!”

RACISM: 1   /   PROFANITY: 1

BuzzFeed News: Fitting its brand priors, BuzzFeed was happy to call it racist — in the headline, in the subhead, and in the lede:

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama is being roundly condemned by prominent Black groups for racist comments he made at a Trump rally in Nevada over the weekend in which he said the descendants of enslaved people were criminals.

The kicker terms it “Tuberville’s sweeping and unabashed racism.” Also, they print the full “bullshit.”

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 10

HuffPost: It’s right in the headline: “GOP Senator Makes Racist Comment Equating Black People To Criminals.” But the story body isn’t as sure, going with “Tuberville’s remarks about reparations played into racist stereotypes about Black people committing crimes.” Also: “He ended his appearance with a profanity as the crowd cheered.”

RACISM: 8   /   PROFANITY: 1

The Daily Beast: Like BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast is clear and direct: “Sen. Tommy Tuberville Goes on Racist Rant Over ‘Reparations,’” plus calling it “a false — and racist — tirade” in the lede. They also quote the full “Bullshit!” in the story, though rendered as “BULLSH*T!” in the subhead.

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 10

Rolling Stone: Led by former Beast editor Noah Shachtman, Rolling Stone goes as far as anyone: a headline of “Watch Trump Crowd Eat Up Sen. Tuberville’s Bizarre Racist Tirade,” plus phrases like “a wildly racist, white nationalist tirade,” “his unhinged rant,” and “racist tropes.” Also, Rolling Stone is no prude when it comes to swearing.

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 10

Vanity Fair: They’re comfortable with “bullshit,” but not with calling it racist; they fall back on labeling it the “Alabama senator’s inflammatory ‘pro-crime’ statement,” which was “widely condemned.”

RACISM: 2   /   PROFANITY: 10

New York Daily News: The tabloid refers to Tuberville’s words as “the racist remark,” but only in the second graf. It’s also only willing to go with “bulls–t.”

RACISM: 8   /   PROFANITY: 5

CBS News: CBS seems to be operating from an old playbook, going no stronger than “controversial” and, yep, “racially-charged.” Also, “Bulls**t.”

RACISM: 2   /   PROFANITY: 5

NBC News: NBC puts the accusations of racism in other people’s quotes, from the headline (“NAACP denounces ‘flat out racist’ remarks by GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville at Trump rally,” “The Alabama Republican was criticized for suggesting over the weekend that descendants of Black slaves are criminals”) on down. They also use “Bulls—.”

RACISM: 4   /   PROFANITY: 5

The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser: Pulling no punches, starting with the headline: “Sen. Tommy Tuberville silent amid uproar over racist remarks made at Nevada event.” Then the lede: “U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama remained silent Monday amid criticism of racist remarks he made at a Nevada rally on Saturday.” But “Bull—.”

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 5

Washington Examiner: The conservative outlet’s headline makes no judgment (“GOP senator claims Democrats want reparations for those who ‘do the crime’”) and the lede only says the comments “made waves.” (Like a gentle breeze, or like an ocean-bed earthquake?) The only person quoted calling the comments racist is CNN’s Abby Phillip, which fits nicely into a CNN-is-so-woke worldview. (“Bulls*!”)

RACISM: 1   /   PROFANITY: 5

Fox News: A remarkable spin here. As best I can tell, foxnews.com didn’t run any stories on Tuberville’s comments themselves. Instead, it ran a story two days later about a Black host of “The View” who called Tuberville’s comments racist — under the headline “’The View’ host Sunny Hostin fumes over being called racist on social media.”

“The View” co-host Sunny Hostin rejected being called a racist on social media during Monday’s episode because she called out “racism” and said it was being “used as a political wedge issue.”

During a discussion about Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s, R-Ala., remarks at a Trump rally in Nevada, he said Democrats were “pro-crime” and that “they want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

“Yeah those reparations are still owed, and so to sort of try to subvert the conversation and bastardize the conversation and call people racist because you call out racism is something that I get to experience every single day on social media, thank you very much. I am somehow a race baiter and a racist because I call it like I see it, and I think it’s being used as a political wedge issue now. Everything is racist. Everything is racist, especially if you call it out,” Hostin said.

No mention of “bullshit.”

RACISM: 1   /   PROFANITY: 1

The Daily Caller: They matched the Fox News strategy: no story about Tuberville’s comments, but a story obliquely about The View’s Sunny Hostin talking about them, headlined “Sunny Hostin Complains About Being Called A Racist On Social Media.” It only quotes eight words of Tuberville’s statement.

RACISM: 1   /   PROFANITY: 1

The Guardian: The liberal U.K. daily was blunt:

Republicans looking to win in the upcoming midterms have campaigned on high inflation and rising crime. But over the weekend, Alabama’s Republican senator Tommy Tuberville resorted to another tactic: racism.

“They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that. Bullshit!” Tuberville declared in a speech on Saturday.

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 10

CBS 42 Birmingham: This local TV station didn’t mention the profanity, and it wasn’t willing to call the statements racist. But it even went further, downplaying what critics were saying:

Tuberville made remarks during a rally held by former President Donald Trump on Saturday, and many Democrats are calling his comments regarding their political party racially charged.

Many Democrats are going further than saying his comments were “racially charged,” obviously.

RACISM: 3   /   PROFANITY: 1

PBS Newshour: Both the web headline and Judy Woodruff’s segment intro refer to Tuberville’s “racist rhetoric.” They also aired the “Bullshit!” but bleeped it out, with an “Bull [EXPLETIVE DELETED]!” in the closed captions.

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 7

Associated Press: Not a moment of particular editorial courage for the wire service, which put a context-free headline (“Senator: Dems back reparations for those who ‘do the crime’”) atop a hedging story:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville asserted that Democrats support reparations for the descendants of enslaved people because “they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

The first-term Alabama Republican spoke at a Saturday evening rally in Nevada featuring former President Donald Trump, a political ally. His comments were part of a broader critique in the final weeks before the Nov. 8 election, when control of Congress is at stake, about how Democrats have responded to rising crime rates. But Tuberville’s remarks about reparations played into racist stereotypes about Black people committing crimes.

“They’re not soft on crime,” Tuberville said of Democrats. “They’re pro-crime. They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparation because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

He ended his appearance with a profanity as the crowd cheered.

“Played into racist stereotypes” four sentences in, and just “a profanity.”

RACISM: 3   /   PROFANITY: 1

The Root: The Black news and opinion site didn’t put racism in the headline, but the subhead makes its view clear, saying Tuberville is “as disgusting as they come”:

On Saturday, first-term Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville gave a racist speech at a rally in rural Nevada alongside former President Donald Trump. Tuberville, who hails from Alabama, made the remarks just weeks before the November 8th elections where control of Congress is up for grabs.

They went with “Bullsh**!”

RACISM: 10   /   PROFANITY: 5

Newsweek: The rump newsweekly teaches the controversy, headlining it “Republican Tuberville Accused of ‘Open Appeal to Racism’ at Trump Rally” and only going as far as “many [are] accusing Tuberville of promoting racist stereotypes” in the body copy. No mention of “bullshit.”

RACISM: 3   /   PROFANITY: 1

The Washington Post: WaPo holds back a bit, attributing claims of racism to others — specifically, Tuberville’s political opposition. “Democrats call Sen. Tuberville’s comments about crime and reparations racist” is the headline.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) falsely claimed that Democrats are “pro-crime” and support reparations for Blacks whose ancestors were enslaved because those who “do the crime” are owed — a remark that has generated accusations of racism and criticism as dishonest.

Speaking at a rally in Minden, Nev., on Saturday headlined by former president Donald Trump, the senator and former football coach dismissed the oft-repeated Republican claim that Democrats are “soft on crime” and made the baseless statement that Democrats are “pro-crime.” Tuberville and Trump were campaigning for Nevada’s GOP candidates ahead of the November midterm elections.

“They’re pro-crime,” Tuberville said. “They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.” He added a profanity.

RACISM: 3   /   PROFANITY: 1

AL.com: As the leading news outlet in Alabama — it’s the combined website of the daily papers in Birmingham, Mobile, and Huntsville — AL.com has been all over the story, with nine articles at my last count. The first one runs a full “’Bullshit!’ he added,” but doesn’t include any accusations of racism at all, by the reporter or anyone else. It doesn’t even mention African Americans in any way until the eighth and final graf.

A followup said only that Tuberville “continues to draw fire for controversial comments,” leaving others’ quotes to be more specific. It’s left to a couple opinion pieces to stake stronger claims, like:

Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s crude, ignorant, racist, fear-mongering rant about reparations is bull excrement. Apologies to bull excrement. It should be an embarrassment to Alabamians. Sadly, we’ve come to expect it.

I will note, however, that AL.com has run the uncensored word “bullshit” at least 22 times since Saturday, which I’d guess probably sets a new holiday-weekend record.

RACISM: 3   /   PROFANITY: 10

Breitbart: Another case of covering the Black response but not what they’re responding to. Breitbart paid little editorial attention to Tuberville’s comments (as an AP customer, it pulled in the AP’s story with no promotion). But it did two posts on Black CNN staffers — contributor Bakari Sellers (here “Bakari Seller”) and anchor Abby Phillip — calling the comments racist.

INCOMPLETE

What are the takeaways from this (admittedly unscientific) sampling? There’s still not much consistency across the industry. Most news outlets, given the option, are happy to put claims of racism between someone else’s quotation marks, rather than in the voice of the reporter or the institution. And while there may be some cultural similarities between the two questions we’re asking here, there are plenty of outlets willing to be bold in one direction but not the other.

It’s hard for me to imagine a cognitively sound way to argue Tuberville’s statements weren’t racist. And these stories show that his ideological allies aren’t really trying to. Across all of them, I found only two instances of a real attempt at defending Tuberville. There was Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, who was unlucky enough to be on Meet the Press when the subject came up. His defense: “I’m not going to say he’s being racist. But I wouldn’t use that language — be more polite.”

The other came from Alabama GOP chair John Wahl, who issued a statement — two days after the Trump rally in question, which is available for all to see online — saying: “I did not watch the rally, so I don’t know the exact context of Senator Tuberville’s remarks. However, Coach Tuberville is well known for his work with people of all backgrounds, both on the field and off.”

Maybe he is. But I don’t think you need to quote the NAACP to state plainly what he said and what it means.

Photo of Tommy Tuberville speaking with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on June 10, 2021 by U.S. Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeely.

  1. A couple things: I looked for the first staff-produced news story in each outlet; some ran a wire version before writing their own. And except where noted, I’m looking for news pieces, not opinion. And I couldn’t find any stories in a number of national outlets, including The New York Times, Axios, New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Bulwark, The Dispatch, and The Blaze. ↩︎
POSTED     Oct. 11, 2022, 1:49 p.m.
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