Facing Backlash, NBC News Revises Guidance On Reporting Steve King’s Comments as “Racist”

On January 14, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced that the House Republican Steering Committee had unanimously voted to strip Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) of his committee assignments in light of renewed scrutiny of his racist comments.

“We will not be seating Steve King on any committees in the 116th Congress. It was a unanimous decision,” McCarthy said. “In light of the comments — these are not the first time we have heard these comments. That is not the party of Lincoln, and it is definitely not America. All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance about that.”

King’s long history of making racist remarks resurfaced last week after an interview with the New York Times in which he asked, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

While King’s racist remarks have been largely ignored by fellow Republican lawmakers in the past, backlash to his comments in the New York Times interview prompted widespread condemnation, including from Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) who called the remarks “reprehensible,” and Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) who called them “offensive and racist.”

The strongest repudiation came from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said King’s remarks were “unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position.”

“If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work,” McConnell added.

Despite the overwhelming repudiation King faced from members of his own party, some journalists still had a difficult time reporting his comments as racist.

In November of last year, it was the New York Times that showed reluctance to report King’s remarks as “racist,” opting instead to call them “racially tinged.” After an online backlash ensued, the Times changed the wording and updated the story to “more accurately describe Steve King’s history of racist remarks.”

Last week however, it was NBC News who received criticism after Huffington Post contributor Yashar Ali revealed that a standards employee issued guidance to reporters telling them not to refer to King’s comments as “racist.”

“Be careful to avoid characterizing [King’s] remarks as racist,” the guidance said. “It is ok to attribute to others as in ‘what many are calling racist’ or something like that.”

Citing an “informed source,” the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple further reported that NBC News staffers objected to attributing the racism in King’s comments to “others.”

After Ali broke his story, a similar backlash ensued. Less than two hours later, NBC News issued a statement saying that it was revising its guidance and that it was “fair to characterize King’s comments as ‘racist,’ and point out that he has a history of racist comments, and the context can be shared that others hold that view as well.”

Criticism of NBC News’ initial guidance was not restricted only to media critics and pundits; in fact, many journalists expressed disappointment with the lax reporting.

In comments made to MediaFile, Sean Aday, associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, called the guidance “typical” of mainstream journalists who are appealing to a politically diverse audience and will go to great lengths to “avoid even the slightest appearance of partisan bias.”

“Sometimes this makes sense, but other times it can lead to false equivalency — the dreaded use of “both sides” when one side is demonstrably more at fault,” Aday said. “That does a disservice to their audience because it violates the fundamental job of journalists, which is to inform.”

In his reflection of the situation, NPR’s Gene Demby said NBC News’ impulse to avoid characterizing King’s comments as “racist” stemmed from the journalistic notions of objectivity and verifiability.

“If the inner workings of people’s souls are necessarily unknowable — and given what we now know about implicit bias, often unknowable even to the very people who are actively doing the discriminating — how could a reporter ever muster enough evidence to characterize a person’s behavior?” Demby asked.

Aday also made the distinction between characterizing statements as “racist” and labelling people as “racist,” but called NBC News’ initial coverage “classic ‘he said-she said’ journalism that tried to distance the news organization from the controversy.”

“But ultimately that’s cowardly and shirks the responsibility of journalists to report the news,” Aday said.

“I don’t think we should fault a news organization for realizing they got it wrong and making a much needed correction,” Aday added.

“This is actually an example of how social media can be a force for good: the outcry on Twitter forced NBC to re-evaluate their decision and make a change. Now, if they only changed their guidance because of the backlash, as opposed to doing so because they thought about it some more and realized they were wrong, that would be a problem.”

“But that doesn’t appear to be what happened here.”

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