On Thursday, February 8, a group of journalists gathered at Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington D.C., for an in-depth discussion on the theme of “The M Word: Muslim Americans on The State of the News Media.” The panel included Wajahat Ali, Julia Ioffe, Ayman Mohyeldin, Rula Jebreal, Malika Bilal and Mehdi Hasan.
Hosted by PEN America, the discussion was a unique opportunity to explore the depiction of Muslims in the media, as well as larger questions about how media narratives have shaped, and continue to shape, the broader political and social discourse. As the world grapples with and tries to disentangle the racist rhetoric that contributed to Donald Trump’s ascent to power, these discussions are essential to promoting intersectionality, as well as strategizing about ways to more effectively address gaps in the media’s representation of minorities.
Both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, there is a distinct lack of diverse voices in mainstream media. This inevitably leads to the essentializing of minority groups, like Muslims, who are often only depicted through the lens of terrorism or relegated to the role of explaining or defending Islam. Conversely, when it comes to issues that directly affect them, like Islamophobia, American Muslims are not given the opportunity to be heard. In the weeks after the Muslim Ban, for example, CNN had ninety guests, only seven of whom were Muslim, as Mehdi Hasan observed.
“How many Muslim pundits can you name?” Hasan asked the audience at Sixth & I. “We came up with 7, one third of whom are on stage tonight.”
As we have seen repeatedly throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency, language plays an enormous role in how people process and identify racism and bigotry. The turns of phrase used to describe Trump’s ideology directly impact our perceptions of it. During the evening, journalist Malika Bilal (co-host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream) pointed to “the mental acrobatics some of us play when it comes to not naming things as they are.” She urged fellow journalists to refer to things in honest, direct terms. “When something is clearly Islamophobic, call it Islamophobic. When something is racist, do not dance around the fact that it is racist,” she said.
Indeed, outlets from ABC News to The New York Times have opted for language that softens the racist and bigoted comments and events taking place in post-Trump America. In an article for the the Columbia Journalism Review, journalist Pete Vernon analyzed the use of words like “racially charged” during media coverage of the NFL Protests, suggesting that in an effort not to “editorialize” or “characterize” arguably racist comments and events, editors are actually doing a disservice to accurate reporting.
The New York Times has also used such evasive terminology, referring to Trump’s campaign as “racially divisive,” and his comments about “shithole countries” as “racially charged.” Though the newspaper recently published a list of Trump’s racist statements or behavior, calling out the very euphemisms it has itself used, the paper should never have used such soft language to describe Trump’s comments in the first place.
Indeed, despite growing public recognition of the U.S. administration’s racism, the euphemisms continue. A simple Google news search for the words “racially charged” yields a list of various recent articles from sources as diverse as the Hollywood Reporter and Politico. The use of euphemisms to describe racism is so pervasive that a new Google chrome plug in, “You Mean Racist” automatically replaces “racially charged” with “racist.”
During the panel discussion, Hasan explained how these efforts to be objective can decontextualize or obscure reality. As an example, he referenced Trump’s insistence in January 2018 that he is the “least racist person ever,” a claim that was retweeted by The New York Times without context. This and other arguably well-intentioned attempt to objectively highlight troubling untruths can lead to a false equivalence, where inflammatory behaviors and rhetoric are treated the same as less morally troubling actions and words – consider, for example, the similar way Trump and Hillary Clinton were covered by the media, during the 2016 presidential campaign.
As the discussion wound down, Malika Bilal urged journalists to do away with the idea of objectivity. “The biggest lie that a lot of us like to believe in the journalism field is that there is such a thing as objectivity, and that we should strive for it. Objectivity is that this white male older perspective is neutral. You really need to make sure you report something and do not give preferential or deferential treatment to all sides,” she said.
Discussions on media representation are critically important to creating fully-fleshed, nuanced representations of communities in the news. At the end of the day, a truly intersectional approach is necessary. “It’s a collective issue,” Egyptian-American journalist Ayman Mohyeldin said during the panel, “It’s something that matters to all of us.”