Covering the Hate Beat
A notable feature of the 2016 race for the White House has been the free flowing comments of some Republican candidates against economic migrants and political refugees and, by association, against the Latino and Muslim communities. The comments go beyond anti-immigration rhetoric and cross the line into the realm of hate speech.
Businessman Donald Trump led the way in his presidential announcement speech on June 16 by describing Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug smugglers, and rapists. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, he redirected his venom toward Muslims. He called for a database to monitor Syrian refugees and possibly all American Muslims as well. Trump accompanied this view with a statement questioning the loyalty of American Muslims, claiming that immediately after the September 11 terrorist attack on Manhattan’s World Trade Center “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” across the river in Jersey City “where you have large Arab populations.”
Trump’s Islam-bashing actually started long before he became the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination—he’s been at the top of the polls since June. He was one of the loudest voices in the United States pushing right-wing claims intended to smear President Barack Obama—that he was born in Kenya—which would disqualify him from occupying the presidency—and that he was a secret Muslim.
Ben Carson, an African-American neurosurgeon in the Republican race, chimed in that Muslims are unfit to be president of the United States because of their religious faith. Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas and another Republican candidate, called for banning refugees from Syria if they are Muslim, but letting Christians in. “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” he explained. Another contender, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, echoed a threat by Trump to shut down U.S. mosques as venues inspiring radicalism. In the latest opinion survey, Trump, Rubio, Cruz, and Carson lead the Republican race with 36, 14, 12, and 10 percent support, respectively, among likely Republican primary voters.
To a great extent, American mainstream news media organizations, wittingly or otherwise, have propelled the hate speech. They have hyped the sound bites, replaying them in headline after headline and broadcast after broadcast, to the point that the comments have enabled the candidates to drive news coverage and thus dominate the campaign discourse. Moreover, too rarely are the comments characterized as hate speech, but are rather labeled as “controversial” or “provocative.” Here journalists are pursuing a false objectivity, eager to prove they are not biased for or against any candidate or party. They are also taking refuge in a false equivalency that treats comments defending or attacking Latino or Muslim communities as equally valid and acceptable political discourse.
Hate speech is broadly protected by the First Amendment, giving Trump and the other Republican candidates a constitutional right to make their odious comments. In Europe, they would need to be more careful. Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 makes it an offense to incite hatred against a group of people based on their religious beliefs. In France, even an icon such as Brigitte Bardot has been convicted and fined for inciting hatred with anti-Muslim comments, including: “My country, France, my homeland, my land is again invaded by an overpopulation of foreigners, especially Muslims.”
Nor in the United States is the right of free speech absolute. Incitement of violence, for example, is not fully protected—and there are reasons to believe that Trump’s remarks have incited violence. The cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten became a cause célèbre for many free speech advocates, who argued that by definition free expression must include the right to spout offensive ideas. (The cartoons most certainly were a direct cause of the anti-Danish protests and riots that swept the Islamic World afterwards, with some 200 deaths.) In an aggressive campaign asserting such a right, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo famously persisted in publishing insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. When Muslim extremists attacked the magazine’s offices and slaughtered 12 people last January, massive demonstrations erupted across France proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie,” ostensibly in defense of free speech.
These can be difficult issues, certainly for journalists, who see part of their calling as a mission to defend the right to a free press. Nobody should argue that the news media should ignore hate speech, least of all when it is spewed forth by public figures and even aspirants to the presidency. The question is how to cover it.
When journalists cover criticism of the hate-mongers, they provide readers and viewers with important alternative viewpoints. News media outlets have traditionally called out lies or provided context on their editorial and Op-Ed pages. Some news media and civil society organizations have institutionalized platforms that make fact checking a discrete service holding public figures accountable for the accuracy of their statements. The Washington Post, FactCheck.org, and PolitFact.com have done admirable work in exposing Trump’s untruths about Latinos and Muslims. In September, the New York Times carried a strongly worded editorial criticizing the Republican attack on Muslims.
But this is not enough, not in an era when the best intentions of the finest journalists are often drowned out by the deafening idiocy of “debates” on so many cable and satellite so-called news channels, or otherwise overwhelmed by social media chatter.
News executives and beat journalists alike need to take a long, hard look at how to define and treat hate speech in the digital media age. One of the principles of journalism is pursuit of the truth—and “truth” is not just dutifully recording and endlessly repeating the hate speech of politicians, but also providing background and perspective. Journalists have an important obligation to their societies to be responsible framers of the public discussion—but this is not accomplished when the endless repetition of the hateful sound bites overwhelms the few stories or editorials here and there that attempt to give critical context.
Broadly speaking, the American mainstream news media has failed miserably in its obligation to provide a comprehensive and proportional narrative of American life—including the lives and voices of ethnic and religious minorities. It should go without saying that Latino and Muslim communities and new immigrants—including the undocumented immigrants that Republicans are so fond of baiting—have made enormous positive contributions to the economic and cultural vitality of the United States. America, indeed, is a nation of immigrants. Yet, pack journalism’s obsession with sound bytes and easy headlines reinforces ignorance about minority communities and the issues around them.
There are a number of immediate steps that American editors and reporters can take to address hate speech. They can put the brakes on automatic, continuous, tabloid-style coverage that treats a politician spewing hate speech as if it was just Justin Bieber committing another act of adolescent mischief. Instead, they can provide their readers and viewers with thoughtful explorations and discussions that use universal human values, rather than the false objectivity and balance supposedly conferred by equal column inches and air time, as journalism’s frame of reference. American journalists can devote space to much fuller, more responsible coverage of communities upon which demagogues are apt to prey.
At the heart of the matter is the philosophical question of free speech. Without any hesitation, it should be practiced and defended at all costs. Whether one cites Supreme Court decisions or the law of common sense, it is clear that healthy societies are built upon the free flow of information and opinions. That is precisely why it is so important that journalists not abuse their right of free speech, or enable others to abuse it. Journalists need not scapegoat, defame, or humiliate our most vulnerable communities, or provide the megaphone for those who do, to prove that free speech is a value worth defending.