MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK. Now to the scene that played out in newsrooms across the country from the moment President Trump started tweeting Sunday morning - journalists going back and forth, trying to figure out how to describe Trump's tweets targeting four Democratic congresswomen of color. And this is not the first time in the Trump presidency that journalists have debated a question such as this, as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik knows firsthand.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Hey there. So these Sunday tweets from the president have, of course, now blown up into the story dominating the week. I know it's only Tuesday but the big story of the week so far. Lay out the fundamental challenge here for news organizations.
FOLKENFLIK: So let's go back to early, early Sunday morning. The president tweets out. He basically says that these progressive Democratic women - Congresswomen. He doesn't name them, but it's clear who they are - should go back to the countries - to places they're from that are corrupt, that are dirty, essentially. And he's just saying, you should go back if you don't love this country. The question immediately facing journalists is, should we characterize this as racist? I mean, these are all women of color, these lawmakers. These are, you know, the same kind of things flung at people of color and also immigrants that have come after - this country. And after wave after wave, in retrospect, Americans have judged these things to be racist. So I talked to a number of news executives, journalists, hosts, reporters. Here's what, for example, David Lauter had to say. He's the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.
DAVID LAUTER: There were some people who were making the argument that we don't need to characterize it. And there were other people who very forcefully made the argument that if we don't characterize it, we're not accurately describing what's going on.
FOLKENFLIK: And that's the tension you saw play out in a lot of newsrooms, including our own. And lurking under that question is the other one that's even more uncomfortable. Is the president himself racist?
KELLY: So I'll move us along to Monday morning. By then, some news organizations, including us here at NPR - also the Associated Press - we were calling the president's tweets racist; decided it was not necessary to qualify them as racially charged or racially loaded or some other euphemism. They were racist. Others were using softer language.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. CNN had been out in front in calling this racist, clearly, by late Sunday morning. Others were holding back, saying these are things that Democrats or critics are denouncing as racist, often viewed as racist, widely denounced as racist. You saw, for example, The New York Times - which to this day, I believe, has not yet called it that. Nonetheless, you know, Peter Baker wrote a very tough analysis that was headlined...
KELLY: The White House correspondent, yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: ..."Trump Fans The Flames Of Racial Fire" (ph). The Washington Post and CBS, however, which had been more careful, by Monday evening, it was outright on its own authority - each in its coverage calling them racist tweets.
KELLY: This is by no means the first time that we journalists have felt conflicted over how to handle the president's language. I'm thinking about the ongoing debate over whether to use the verb lie. Other examples?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's a classic one. But when it comes to race, there are these other important single episodes. We go back to Charlottesville - good people on both sides after a white supremacist rally that turned deadly, one anti-racist protester being killed. One case - the president, as a candidate, said that a judge, who is the son of Mexican immigrants, couldn't be impartial to him because of his parents' heritage. And, you know, birtherism itself - his claims against President Obama; that was, in some ways, seen as both a combination of an original lie or misleading assertion and one based on a race-based claim that was untrue.
KELLY: Just a few seconds left, David. But how should news executives grapple with the fact that the president can seize the news agenda just with a few taps of his keyboard?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, this is one of those instances in which, I think, NPR gets it about right, where you cover the things. And I'm putting on my media critic's hat here. But you don't make it blanket coverage. Certainly, cable has often - has feasted on this in many ways, although there are a lot of other stories to cover. And news sites, you know, even major, big-city dailies that feast on big clicks have turned to it a lot. I think the notion is to cover it but not to let it blanket out all else that's happening.
KELLY: NPR media correspondent and media critic David Folkenflik, speaking with us from New York.
Thank you, David.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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