On Thursday night, at a town hall in New Hampshire, Donald Trump nodded along when a supporter declared, "We have a problem in this country, it's called Muslims," warned darkly of Muslim-American "training camps," then went on to ask, "When can we get rid of 'em?" The man also declared President Obama to be Muslim.
Trump, throughout, encouraged the man's question, saying "right" and "we need this question!" He then responded, "We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things."
You might expect the American media to declare Trump's comments unacceptable and out-of-bounds, as it did with Trump's misogynistic comments about Fox News host Megyn Kelly. After all, Trump had encouraged and agreed with a man who, at worst, was calling for genocide against Muslim Americans and, at best, was indulging a "training camps" conspiracy theory that claims Muslim-American communities are organizing fifth-column paramilitary forces, a theory they has been used to incite hatred and even violence toward Muslim American communities.
But that is not how the media has responded — not even close. It has largely ignored Trump's exchange with the supporter about the need to "get rid" of Muslims or at least Muslim "training camps," and has also ignored the latter's clear reference to a quasi-genocidal conspiracy theory.
Instead, coverage has focused overwhelmingly on what is by far the most benign part of the exchange, in which the Trump supporter calls Obama a Muslim, and Trump fails to "correct" him.
Here are just a few of many examples:
By shifting the focus to Trump's not-at-all-new belief that Obama is a Muslim, the media is, in effect, deliberately or not, sweeping the most important part of this story under the rug. It is not just ignoring, but encouraging their viewers to ignore, a leading presidential candidate encouraging fear of and incitement toward 2.6 million American citizens.
This emphasis in coverage has continued with the help of Ben Carson, who on Sunday said that a Muslim should not be president, allowing the media another couple of cycles to focus on "truther" claims that Obama is Muslim (and associated arguments that Muslims should be barred from the presidency), and thus sweep the real news — mainstream political support for mass fear and violence toward Muslim Americans — safely under the rug.
The reason this is happening is relatively simple: the mainstream media is willing to declare "trutherism" out of bounds but, by and large, is unwilling to do the same for more generalized prejudice toward Muslim Americans. Rather, it still considers the question of whether Muslims are inferior human beings to be a valid issue worthy of debate.
How would the media treat this if Trump's supporter had talked about a different demographic group?
To see this and understand why it's happening, it helps to imagine how this incident would have gone down if it had revolved around a different religious minority group: Jewish Americans.
Here's how Trump's exchange with his supporter would've looked the word "Jews" were exchanged for "Muslims":
MAN IN AUDIENCE: We have a problem in this country, it's called Jews. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American. Birth certificate, man!
DONALD TRUMP: We need this question!
MAN IN AUDIENCE: But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: when can we get rid of 'em?
DONALD TRUMP: We're gonna be looking at a lot of different things. And you know that a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Now imagine if the incident was followed with media coverage that ignored the man's assertion of Jewish "training camps," ignored his call to "get rid of em," and focused only on his accusation that Obama were Jewish. Here are those same headlines again, with the same change:
This would be unimaginable. It is just not possible to imagine the media blithely ignoring a man accusing Jews of organizing secret enclaves to take over American society (such theories would sound uncomfortably familiar, wouldn't they?) and calling to "get rid of em."
Were this to happen, and the media to have responded in this way, it would look like the media had decided to give Trump a pass for his and his supporter's comments, that it was unwilling to criticize incitements to violence.
That is indeed what is happening with the media's refusal to criticize Trump or his supporter for their incitement against Muslim Americans. And it's not at all surprising — this has been happening in the media for some time. The media simply has different rules when it comes to bigotry against Muslims.
Much of the media is complicit in Trump's anti-Muslim bigotry
This incident has exposed more than just Trump's willingness to tolerate or even embrace anti-Muslim bigotry — it has exposed much the same in the mainstream American media.
Since the rise of ISIS, segments of the US media have decided, bizarrely, to buy into the group's claims that it represents true Islam. This has coincided with media coverage that conflates ISIS with Islam itself and impugns the world's 1.6 billion Muslims for the group's actions — though the vast majority of ISIS's victims and enemies are Muslim themselves.
You have seen this, for example, in a series of segments on CNN asking if Islam "promotes violence." CNN has indulged the idea that all Muslims are extremists until proven otherwise, for example asking a well known Muslim-American human rights lawyer, in the middle of an interview, "Do you support ISIS?" It has also maintained a generalized hysteria about Islam and Islamist extremism that led it, in June, to mistake a dildo-covered flag at a gay pride rally in London for an ISIS infiltration of the city's LGBT community.
This problem extends to the left, as well. HBO host Bill Maher frequently rants against Islam and its adherents, saying, for example, that "vast numbers of Muslims want humans to die for holding a different idea" and share "too much in common with ISIS."
Fox News has taken this to the next logical step, telling its millions of viewers over and over that Muslims are a threat who must be feared and dealt with forcefully, even violently.
For example, Fox News's Andrea Tantros, in making a point about "the history of Islam," argued, "You can't solve it with a dialogue. You can't solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It's the only thing these people understand." Bill O'Reilly has declared that "Islam is a destructive force" and that the US is in a holy war with certain groups of Muslims.
Fox News has also promoted a conspiracy theory claiming that Muslim Americans are secretly organizing into paramilitary training camps. This conspiracy theory helped inspire a Tennessee man named Robert Doggart, who was arrested for plotting to lead a far-right militia to attack a predominantly Muslim community in upstate New York.
This is the same conspiracy theory that Trump's supporter seemed to cite in his question to Trump about Muslims: "We have training camps growing where they want to kill us," he said. So it is not just that the media is promoting generalized Islamophobia that has grown out of control into what you saw at the Trump town hall — rather, it is promoting precisely the same Islamophobia that appeared there.
The media's rules for Islamophobia
This complicity is part of the reason why the media is unwilling to challenge such deep-seated Islamophobia; it would mean examining itself, and that's not a fun idea. But there's something more going on as well — the media has not yet decided that out-and-out Islamophobia is unacceptable, and thus is ill-equipped to cover moments of extreme Islamophobia.
One of the unspoken rules of mainstream political coverage is that certain ideas are considered fair game to debate, such as gun control, whereas other ideas are considered off-limits and taboo.
This latter category includes accusing President Obama of being Muslim or saying that Muslims should be barred from the presidency; both are clearly and categorically false, so the media is comfortable criticizing Ben Carson and Donald Trump for saying them.
Most forms of bigotry are considered taboo by the political press, but this was not always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, during political debates around women and gays in the military or workplace sexual harassment, for example, media coverage of these issues considered it fair game to ask questions that we would now consider off-limits, such as whether same-sex parents can responsibly raise a child or whether women are mentally capable of running a company.
These questions, once considered fair game for politicians to ask, are now taboo. That happened for many reasons, but one is that the media stopped treating these as legitimate debates and started covering such statements as improper, or at least as "gaffes."
The media has not yet made this shift when it comes to Islamophobia; it still treats the question of whether Muslims are inherently violent or backwards as a valid debate in which both sides should be aired. When CNN came under fire for asking if Islam promotes violence, several hosts countered that they were just following their journalistic responsibility to "ask the question."
This makes the media part of the problem: because it continues to indulge Islamophobia as a valid position, it tells its audiences that it is acceptable to hate Muslims, and indeed important to question whether Muslims are inherently inferior.
But this also makes it very hard for the media to cover instances of extreme Islamophobia, such as the Donald Trump supporter who called to "get rid of 'em." How is CNN or Fox News to reconcile its position that the jury is still out on the basic humanity of Muslims, while simultaneously chastising Trump and his supporter for taking those ideas to their inevitable extreme? They can't honestly cover this incident without coming out and saying that hating and fearing Muslims is wrong, but many outlets are not ready to take that position, so they don't.
Maybe there will come a time when the media will update its standards and begin to treat Islamophobia, like other forms of bigotry, as unacceptable. But until it does, Islamophobia will continue to be a part of our mainstream political discourse, and when it flares up into inevitable incitements to hatred and possibly even violence, the media will continue to divert our attention to safer issues like the president's birth certificate.