The media unload on Trump

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump's call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. has elicited strong responses from the media
  • The willingness to use such language represents a watershed moment in the 2016 campaign

(CNN)Donald Trump's latest controversy is unleashing condemnation from Democrats, Republicans -- and journalists.

With Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, several of the nation's most esteemed journalists and influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance and given themselves license to label the Republican front-runner a liar, a demagogue, a racist and worse.
Tom Brokaw, the veteran NBC News anchor, has called Trump's proposal "dangerous," and likened it to the Holocaust and the Japanese internment. On its front page, The New York Times has said Trump's idea is "more typically associated with hate groups." Dan Balz, of The Washington Post, has called Trump's rhetoric "demagogic," while BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith has informed staff that it is acceptable to refer to Trump on social media as a "mendacious racist," because, he said, those are facts.
    Several others have said Trump's proposal poses a national security threat. "This is not small ball, actually. This matters," Richard Engel, the NBC News chief foreign correspondent, said Monday. "It is...a black spot on our collective foreign policy and our conscience. And it also just feeds into the ISIS narrative."
    The willingness to use such language and draw such analogies represents a watershed moment in the media's coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, several journalists and political observers told CNN. For the first time in six months, news organizations are abandoning concerns about impartiality and evenhandedness and stating what they believe are objective truths about the Republican's most popular presidential candidate.
    "What Trump is doing is wildly outside American traditions and values, and that's what we're covering and responding to and I think you see that across major media outlets," Smith told CNN. "I've never seen a candidate base his campaign on vilifying a minority group. So it would be misleading to characterize it any other way."
    But the new media backlash also comes six months into a campaign that has been characterized by Trump's derogatory statements -- about Mexican immigrants, African-Americans and others -- since the day it began. That has left many observers feeling like the media's newfound confidence is late in coming.
    "As his comments have become more extreme, the mainstream media has been more willing to describe him -- accurately in my view -- as a demagogue, a national security threat, and a racist. But frankly, his racism and demagoguery were apparent from his first speech announcing his candidacy back on June 16," said Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker's Washington correspondent and CNN political analyst.
    To be sure, many journalists have been characterizing Trump's campaign in these terms for some time. In August, Lizza compared Trump to the "far-right parties" in Europe, and said that he was "running a candidacy that is based on resentment of non-white people."
    But for the most part, journalists stopped short of calling Trump demagogic or racist, despite the fact that he has often relied on false information about minorities to appeal to popular prejudices. At his campaign launch, Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals, drug dealers and "rapists." In November, Trump tweeted out inaccurate homicide statistics suggesting that blacks were responsible for 81 percent of white homicides. FBI statistics for 2014 put the actual number below 15 percent.
    If this were racism and demagoguery, the mainstream media was not quick to identify it as such. That may have been due, at least in part, to the unique nature of Trump's campaign. For a long time, many journalists didn't take the former reality television star seriously. When he became the front-runner, despite his incendiary remarks, many were simply confounded by his ability to flout the conventional rules of American politics.
    "I think the media has struggled to cover the dark side of the Trump phenomenon because political reporters do not have experience covering a major political figure who is both openly racist and -- let's be honest -- an extremely entertaining politician," Lizza said.
    Trump's call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" changed all that.
    "The media began by covering Trump as a sideshow, then grew more aggressive in challenging him on his 'facts', and now is more actively commenting on the character of his campaign," said David Axelrod, the chief strategist on Barack Obama's presidential campaigns and CNN senior political commentator.
    The new phase of Trump-media relations has ushered in an unusual moment in American politics, said media experts.
    Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said journalism "has moved into the 'have you no shame' mode. There are thresholds and several have been crossed and that blows up so-called objective reporting. There are times when he-said she-said isn't enough."
    Kelly McBride, the vice president for Academic Programs at The Poynter Institute, stressed that while some of the terms were appropriate, it was important for journalists to put Trump's remarks in context.
    "Rather than just calling him racist, there's more journalistic value in pointing out why it's racist," she said. "So I like it when I see newsrooms making historical analogies. I like the editorials pointing out that he's dangerous and why."
    The question now is, what impact will the media backlash have, if any?
    Trump has proven time and time again that incendiary remarks only bolster his support. Moreover, his supporters harbor little respect for the American media, and often give the candidate a standing ovation when he calls the media "scum."
    Frank Rich, the New York Magazine columnist, said the media's disdain would only "enhance his support from his fans."
    Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, agreed. "Media disdain is a badge of honor for Trump and his supporters," he said. "So this latest bout of criticism from the press won't hurt him."
    "Perhaps the only way the media could dent Trump would be to have him on TV less often and become less obsessed with him--but that's not going to happen," Lowry added. "Bottom line: Another Republican candidate is going to have to outmaneuver Trump or just flat-out beat him. It's that simple."