Let's imagine a hypothetical presidential candidate. No particular party affiliation. But here are some of the things he has said: He wants to ban all Muslims from coming into the US. He has called Mexicans "rapists" who are "bringing crime" and "bringing drugs" to the US, and wants to build a wall to keep them out. He has said about women, "You have to treat 'em like shit." He refers to minorities as "the blacks" and "the Hispanics." He excuses his hateful language by decrying "political correctness." He has the support of white supremacists, a group that he's pandered to repeatedly.
By any objective measure, this candidate would be considered bigoted.
But when it comes to Donald Trump, the candidate who's said and called for all these things, much of the media does not refer to him as a bigot — instead using euphemisms to describe him, as Media Matters noted in a recent video. Trump says something prejudiced? It's "controversial." Trump wants to ban an entire minority group (Muslims) from the US? He's "tough" on national security. He insults Mexicans? He's "tough" on immigration. And so on.
In the above video, Media Matters' Carlos Maza explains why the "controversial" moniker is particularly problematic: "Calling something controversial just means people disagree about it, which is a really unhelpful and misleading way of talking about bigotry. It puts racism and Islamophobia on the same level as any routine policy disagreement."
But our language matters. It's one way we reinforce our cultural norms and morals. So when the media lets Trump whitewash prejudiced views as genuine disagreement, that reinforces the idea that a racist or sexist view is simply a different idea, not something that we shouldn't tolerate as a society.
That could help a racist like Trump win the election, since it lets him act like he's not extreme. As Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel put it on Twitter, "The both-sides-do-it nature of the media is probably going to help Trump."
Beyond Trump, all of this signals to other political candidates that those views are just fine in America. And that can help normalize dangerous ideas.
Consider Trump's proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US: A few years ago, nothing like it — a ban on an entire religious group — would break into the political mainstream. Today? It's an idea that pundits regularly discuss, and pollsters routinely ask Americans about, all because Trump proposed it. It's become a mainstream policy position.
One of the most dangerous things about Trump is mainstreaming ideas like this. pic.twitter.com/LRhcLehziB— Evan Hill (@evanchill) March 16, 2016
To some extent, Americans should expect their political leaders to act as gatekeepers to these kinds of harmful ideas. But if that fails, the media is supposed to step up and act as another barrier by holding political leaders accountable. But if the media can't call a ban on an entire minority group bigoted, and instead refers to it as "controversial," it's not doing that job — and bigotry can become normalized.