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The media's challenge in the time of Trump: Where to draw the line between free speech and dangerous rhetoric

The media's challenge in the time of Trump: Where to draw the line between free speech and dangerous rhetoric
White nationalist Richard Spencer at Texas A&M University, where he gave a speech protested by hundreds. (Ralph Barrera / TNS)

Since the presidential election of Donald Trump last month, white nationalist Richard Spencer has been getting a lot of media attention. This week, news crews turned out in force to cover a protested speech he gave at Texas A&M University.

"I'm trying to normalize 'racism,' as you call it," he told ABC's Juju Chang.  "Absolutely I'm trying to normalize my ideas."

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It was Spencer's second round of heavy mainstream media. Right after the election, at a conference promoting the creation of a white ethno-state, Spencer received wide coverage for the Nazi salutes that greeted his exclamation, "Hail, Trump!"

Each time, it's been a careful dance by a mainstream media that are attempting to cover such hate without, as Spencer says, normalizing it.

Should reporters refer to this white nationalist sliver of the president-elect's supporters as neo-Nazis or the more friendly term coined by Spencer, the "alt right"? One is a serious accusation, the other is perhaps the embrace of dangerous propaganda.

It's one of many new challenges for  media that were pretty much practicing business as usual until the rise of  Trump.

"Trump has sanctioned comments that were considered indecent before," says Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks the rise of hate crimes and racism in the U.S. "Those ideas are now being expressed by people on [a] Delta Airlines flight, in [a] Michaels store. It's happening all over the place. People may have had racist or bigoted ideas in their head, but they weren't just spouting them off everywhere. He unleashed the hounds."

Rising hate, the erosion of baseline civility and the limits of political correctness have knocked American discourse for a loop.

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer, left, at the National Policy Institute's conference in Washington D.C. on Nov. 18.
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer, left, at the National Policy Institute's conference in Washington D.C. on Nov. 18. (Linda Davidson / Washington Post / Associated Press)

I’m trying to normalize ‘racism,’ as you call it, Absolutely I’m trying to normalize my ideas.


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Trump's casual use of language that walks the line of hate-speech, and many Americans' willingness to overlook it, has left the media the task of navigating such language without falling into the trap of making it their own. And frankly, they haven't always succeeded.

During the recently concluded presidential campaign, prime-time CNN hosts and analysts read and screamed words at each other formerly reserved for R-rated films.

When Trump was caught on tape bragging about making aggressive sexual advances on women, many family newspapers loosened their usually conservative standards of language they'd allow into print.

"The past 12 months might be remembered as the year of Donald Trump," read an extremist website associated with Spencer while it was sponsoring a post-election celebration. "It was a time when more people joined our movement then ever before and when our ideas began invading the mainstream."

What's ironic is that it was the so-called mainstream, which includes the "liberal" entertainment industry, that gave Trump his greatest platform up until the presidency in the form of a reality TV competition. In "The Apprentice" he played boss in a fabricated workplace where contestants' futures rested on his judgment. And it was none other than former VH1 reality star Tila Tequila who tweeted a picture of herself and two others happily giving the Nazi salute from a party before the same conference where Spencer hailed Trump.

But in the reality outside that TV reality, Trump is a textbook case of what not to do in the workplace if you want to stay employed. In any other context, referring to people of color as "the blacks" whose "laziness" is an inherent "trait," calling Mexicans "rapists" or mocking a disabled person (as Trump did a reporter) would prove actionable.

Just ask his peers from the world of television.

NBC fired Billy Bush from the "Today" show after the leak of the "Access Hollywood" tape that captured him joking with and encouraging Trump, who bragged about his vulgar treatment of women. Cooking show host and "Dancing with the Stars" contestant Paula Deen lost her Food Network empire after a discrimination lawsuit revealed she'd used derogatory terms, including the "N-word." Dwayne Chapman of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" was temporarily suspended from the A&E show after a taped phone call in which he spewed racial epithets was made public.

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Politics may now be the place to air such ugliness without the fear of reprisal, but it was celebrity that got him there. So much for Hollywood being out of touch with middle-class white voters.

The American Bar Assn. defines hate speech as "speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits," and many use this definition as a basis for setting rules of civility in their respective institutions.

But there are a sizable number of Americans who see civil discourse as an unwelcome outgrowth of political correctness, a liberal gag order that has finally been lifted with Trump.

Earlier this summer, in a year that Hollywood and the Oscars sought to diversify after a groundswell of criticism over its largely Anglo ranks, a reboot of "Ghostbusters" with a black and female leads generated epic trolling and outrage over the movie's "forced diversity," so much so that its actors received death threats.

The 1st Amendment protects neo-Nazi sentiment in the same way it does Black Lives Matter slogans or the bizarre chants of the Westboro Baptist Church when members picket funeral services. Oh, and flag burning.

Demonstrators hold signs as they chant outside the Texas A&M; venue where white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke on Tuesday.
Demonstrators hold signs as they chant outside the Texas A&M; venue where white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke on Tuesday. (David J. Phillip / AP)

But the mainstreaming of hate speech has put the creators of social media platforms in the odd position of policing their users. The old argument of where to draw line between freedom of expression and dangerous rhetoric is now being tested in ways that we couldn't have imagined just a year ago.

Just last month Facebook promised to better monitor the dissemination of propaganda by faux news organizations, some of which were created by Russian hackers.

Many of the most shared "news" stories leading up to the presidential election were  fabricated, yet according to analytics they often topped reported news from sources such as the New York Times in the number of shares they received: The pope endorses Trump! A Democratic operative was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton!

Twitter pledged to crack down on trolls and accounts that promote "violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct, and multiple account abuse." It even specified that Trump would not be immune if he violates its rules.

The coming Trump administration, where the chief White House strategist has been the head of the Breitbart website, which disseminated some of the most inflammatory headlines and stories of the presidential campaign, is certainly going to test the limits of civility.

How the democracy-challenging tests on free speech will be covered in the media, and manifest in film and television, is an ongoing experiment whose outcome is as unpredictable as Trump's win once was.

On Twitter: @LorraineAli

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