Late Monday afternoon, I spoke with a colleague about the challenge of summarizing President Trump’s response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. On the one hand, Trump said in a speech that “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacism” — which is the kind of boilerplate he has often eschewed. On the other hand, Trump didn’t address the potential role of his own rhetoric — including his recent racist tweets — and at other points in his address he seemed to chalk the whole thing up to mental illness.
What kind of headline could you even write for that? A few hours later, the New York Times showed how not to do it.
“TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM,” read the headline for the early editions of the Times’s print copy.
Democratic presidential candidates publicly derided it. And the Times changed it for future editions to “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS” (which still didn’t totally pacify critics).
So what was wrong with the original? Technically speaking, it was accurate. Trump did “urge unity vs. racism,” saying that the country must condemn racism and white supremacism “in one voice.” And that was, strictly speaking, news — especially given Trump has repeatedly declined to offer similar condemnations of racism after evil acts committed by racists (for a variety of potential reasons). The most infamous example is his blaming of “both sides” for what happened at a Charlottesville rally in 2017, where a white supremacist murdered a counterprotester.
So, when Trump finally says something amounting to the right thing about apparent racist violence, why not play that up? The problem is that he was clearing a very low bar that he set himself and that the rest of his comments suggested racism was merely a byproduct, rather than the root cause of the violence.
For any other president, condemning racism would be a matter of course following the mass killing of Hispanics by a shooter who apparently believed immigrants were invading the country. It wouldn’t be huge news, because you’d fully expect them to say it. The potential rise of racism in America might be the big story, but a president condemning it would not be.
There’s something to be said for noting Trump’s change in rhetoric, but you also need to consider the context. And that context is the bigger point. The fact is that the rest of Trump’s comments suggested this was more about mental illness than racism.
“If you look at both of these cases, this is mental illness,” he said Sunday. “These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”
Even in his speech Monday, he suggested racism was something that the already-mentally ill shooter latched on to. “We must recognize that the Internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” he said.
Trump’s speech dwelt upon a number of potential solutions, including for dealing with mental illness, social media and violent video games. He did not specifically mention how we combat racism, apart from saying we must condemn it and look at places where it is fertilized. He did not address that the El Paso shooter’s apparent manifesto contained similarities to his own rhetoric.
And there’s a good reason for that. Regardless of whether you feel Trump is racist or has said racist things — The Washington Post regards his recent “go back” tweets as racist — he has at the very least toyed with the tools of racial and cultural resentment. He has repeatedly warned of an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants and called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, among many other examples. If you play with those tools, there is the chance people will get very bad ideas. On the same day Trump was speaking, a man who sent mail bombs to several of Trump’s top critics, Cesar Sayoc, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
One of Trump’s political skills is saying a whole bunch of things that allow people to take away from the situation what they want to. Oftentimes, these things are utterly contradictory. And when the media notes those contradictions or focuses on what Trump’s supporters believe are the wrong things, both they and Trump claim persecution. If it’s not a concerted strategy, it might as well be.
The bad headline was written for a good story that contained all that nuance. Of course, capturing so much context in a small allotted space is no easy feat for the editors charged with doing this, as my colleague Laura Michalski laid out on Twitter following the initial uproar over the headline.
But it’s up to the media to sift through all the noise and distill what Trump is really saying. Summarizing that in five words is extremely difficult, but it’s also extremely important.