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'Washington Post' Columnist On The Media's Role In The Rise Of Political Extremism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three weeks after the insurrection at the Capitol, many journalists are looking closely at the role the media played - not just during that pivotal week, but over the last four years of the Trump presidency - asking, for example, whether our industry provided too much oxygen and sunlight to white nationalism and white supremacy. In The Washington Post, Karen Attiah argues that news organizations need to hold themselves accountable to prevent this from happening again, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

KAREN ATTIAH: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: I want to talk about what the media did learn during the four years of covering Trump and what we did not. And let's start with where you actually saw a positive evolution over the last four years. What did you see change?

ATTIAH: One thing that the media realized it needed to take a bit of a more proactive stance on was, you know, just dealing with the mistruths and, frankly, lies that were coming out of the Trump administration. I think, you know, we saw CNN, other media outlets, you know, using chyrons to, you know, basically say, you know, that the president's statements are not based in fact or go against established knowledge. That was one, I mean, I would say positive. But I also would say that's our job, right? But we found it very...

SHAPIRO: Right. Like, we should have been doing it from the beginning.

ATTIAH: Yeah, we found it very difficult - right? - to use the L word, you know.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ATTIAH: But I think, overall, we found it very difficult to deal with a president and members of an administration that would openly lie to the public.

SHAPIRO: So help us understand how you would like to see news organizations draw the line between, on the one hand, reflecting a complete picture of this country, where more than 70 million people voted to give Donald Trump a second term and Trump encouraged white supremacist rioters, without, on the other hand, giving oxygen to insurrectionists and falling into what you described in your Post piece as coddling.

ATTIAH: Yeah, and this is where I describe, you know, even when President Biden, in his inaugural address, speaks about white supremacy and domestic terrorism and political extremism as something we should confront and defeat and the media largely, you know, I believe, has coddled these forces in the name of both-sides-ism (ph). And I think this is where we, particularly as an industry - an industry that is looking to reach out to as many viewers and as many readers from both sides of the spectrum - I think the problem that we're grappling with is when it comes to the right or the Republican side of the spectrum, it has, under Donald Trump, become so extreme that I think this is where we may be struggling to pull the line back.

SHAPIRO: There are obviously some news organizations that do dumb things to be provocative, but there are also news organizations that deeply believe in letting people speak for themselves, even if those people have views that others might find distasteful or reprehensible. What do you say to that approach?

ATTIAH: Yeah, you know, I think that in many ways that is what we are here to do, is to provide that spectrum of perspectives and voices. Again, I think that the issue is - the issue when we - when we're platforming a spectrum of voices and perspectives is how far is too far. Like, for instance, if we're saying, is racism an acceptable perspective? Are we still - in 2021, is there still a both-sides to racism? Is there still a both sides to thinking that Black people are less deserving of rights and humanity than white people, right? And I think where we're at and what, basically, the implication is of platforming views is the media outlet itself is telling its audience, we think that this viewpoint is something that you should consider, is something that you listen to.

SHAPIRO: As is so often the case, many of the people who have been ringing these alarms the longest and the loudest are Black journalists and other people of color who are not insulated by the same privilege as white people in the media. Over the last four years, how were those journalists treated when they shined a light on these issues?

ATTIAH: Yeah, I'm thinking - my mind comes a lot to Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN, who sent out a tweet calling Trump a white supremacist a few years back. And she was reprimanded by ESPN for it. I'm thinking of Keith Boykins (ph) - a number of commentators who talked about, you know, Trump even from the beginning, saying that Trump had the potential to be the leader of the Republican Party and on the ticket. And, you know, you can go back and watch them just literally being laughed at by their counterparts at the time.

And it just speaks to a certain understanding that Black people in this country have of white America and what it is capable of and how powerful these forces, again, of nativism, of making America great again for largely white people, how powerful that is of a draw. And we saw that from the early stages.

SHAPIRO: And do you think that's changed? Do you think those journalists are being heard today?

ATTIAH: I mean, you tell me. Are you listening now? We haven't stopped speaking about it. I think the question is largely, are our white counterparts listening now? And I think, unfortunately, in some ways, it wasn't until the Capitol Hill attack on January 6, where five people lost their lives, where the building was basically desecrated, that all of a sudden, you know, I saw a lot of my white peers just shocked and dismayed in disbelief that, you know, such a thing could happen, that these dark forces could then turn upon our very democracy in and of itself.

And I think that's what a lot of Black and nonwhite journalists and also white - I would say white - you know, have been saying all these years that, ultimately, these forces care about preserving power for themselves, and they will turn against our institutions. They have turned against journalists. Racial, religious minorities, we're always the canaries in the coal mine in many ways. But the violence affects us all. Even our own Capitol isn't safe from it. Our own lawmakers aren't safe from it. Even if you're a Republican, they were coming for them, right? So we warned everyone.

SHAPIRO: Karen Attiah is the global opinions editor at The Washington Post.

Thank you for talking with us.

ATTIAH: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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