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Zurawik: Trump tweets started a conversation about Baltimore, but it is polarized, social-media nasty and going nowhere

Zurawik: Trump tweets started a conversation about Baltimore, but it is polarized, social-media nasty and going nowhere
Bill Bramhall's editorial cartoon for July 30, 2019, following Trump's comments towards Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and his "disgusting, rat and rodent infested" district over the weekend. The Baltimore Sun fired back with a scathing article titled: "Better to have a few rats than to be one." (Bill Bramhall/New York Daily News)

Monday night on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, President Donald Trump’s son, Eric, said Baltimore should be grateful for all the “attention” his father’s tweets have brought the city.

I guess if you have been raised by a narcissistic, tabloid-loving, publicity hound of a father who can’t live without seeing his name and image constantly in the media, getting “attention” — any kind of attention including widespread condemnation for being a racist — is all that matters. But as someone who has been engaged in the public discussion of civic and media life here for three decades, I feel safe saying there is attention and then there is attention.

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Tracking the discussion in the media about Baltimore since Trump started blasting away at Rep. Elijah Cummings and his 7th Congressional District, which includes a large part of Baltimore, I am distressed and depressed. Our polarization is only getting more pronounced, our rhetoric louder and uglier as it is amplified through social media. We aren’t just talking past each other any more, it’s as if we are talking different languages and the sound of each other’s voices are too dissonant and grating to bear.

I used to believe that as long as an issue was being publicly discussed in the media, it could be resolved, that we were moving in the right direction, and might eventually reach some kind of consensus. It was a variation, I guess, on the saying that as long as people are talking, they’re not fighting.

But not any more. Now, talking is fighting, down-and-dirty, insult-hurling, gouge-out-your-opponents-eyeballs fighting. Thank you, Twitter, and our president who seems tailor made for this rancorous, debased, hateful medium.

The combination of a president who hates facts the way a vampire hates holy water and large media platforms that label and promote themselves as news but traffic in disinformation and propaganda on behalf of the White House is the difference today. That unholy marriage is unprecedented.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy had the support of some large media platforms during his reckless naming of alleged communists during the 1950s, most notably the Hearst newspaper chain. But he was only a junior senator from Wisconsin, not the president of the United States with the most powerful pulpit in the land. And like Trump, Alabama governor and American Independent Party presidential candidate George Wallace was quite clear about his racism in the 1960s, but outside of few southern newspapers, he had no mainstream media support, certainly not among the TV networks.

I and many others reported the way in which the sick relationship between Trump and the "Fox & Friends” morning show Saturday ignited the president’s tweets attacking Cummings, his district and Baltimore.

Early Saturday, the president saw a report featuring a Baltimore woman, Kimberly Klacik, whom Fox identified as a Republican strategist, calling Cummings’ district the “most dangerous” in America. The interview was headlined: “How do living conditions in Rep. Cummings Baltimore district compare to those on the border?” It included video on boarded-up rowhouses and garbage-strewn alleys that Klacik said she videotaped in Cummings’ district.

“To have Congressman Cummings talking about conditions at the border is laughable,” she said, characterizing those in Baltimore as “atrocious.”

That was just days after Cummings assailed Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of Homeland Security, over his agency’s cruel failure to properly keep track of children separated from their parents at the southern border.

Cummings’ district, which includes a large part of Baltimore, is not the “most dangerous in America," according to the FBI. But that false allegation is exactly the kind of disinformation Trump traffics in on a daily basis.

And by 7:14 a.m. last Saturday the president of the United States was blasting away on Twitter calling Cummings’ district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” which is “far worse and more dangerous” than the Southern border. Cummings’ district, Trump tweeted, is considered “the worst in the United States” and a place “no human being would want to live.”

Over the weekend, The Sun led legacy journalism platforms in using facts to counter Trump’s tweets. It reported that the blight shown in the videos on Fox News represented one slice of sprawling and diverse district that ran from Columbia in the south to rolling horse country in the north, including pockets of affluence and world-class institutions like The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Homewood campus, as well as the Walters Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. A Sun reporter interviewed residents throughout the district who countered the narrative laid down by the “Fox & Friends" segment and the president’s tweets.

Nor was The Sun alone. The Associated Press, New York Times and CNN delivered similar reports to try to correct the disinformation in Trump’s tweets, while factually offering a fuller and more representative sense of Cummings’ district. CNN went hard at the story all weekend starting with an excellent response from Saturday morning anchor Victor Blackwell who grew up in West Baltimore. He surgically deconstructed Trump’s racist use of the term “infestated” in connection with “black and brown people.”

All of that mainstream media muscle should have set the record straight, you might think. But you would be wrong. In the age of Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts, there no longer seems to be anything we can even call a record.

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Despite all the mainstream pushback, Trump kept blasting away Monday and Tuesday, with Fox and other right-wing platforms amplifying his attacks on Cummings and Baltimore, which the president conflated with the 7th District.

Monday, the narrative out of the White House expanded to say Baltimore is a rat infested mess because Democrats have been in charge for decades; this is what you get when Democrats rule.

Tuesday, the spin evolved to say that the federal government has given the city billions of dollars that have disappeared. Trump said Cummings should take his House Oversight Committee and investigate where that money went, even though that is not what the committee does.

At the conservative “American Greatness” platform, one column began: “I shall leave it to the theologians to decide whether it is providential or merely coincidental that it was this very week in 1729, on Tuesday in fact, that the city of Baltimore was founded. I think we can say that, for the genus rattus, the city has been providential, at least since 1967. That was the year Thomas D’Alesandro III — the brother of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (and son of Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., a former mayor of Baltimore) — began the city’s 50-plus years of uninterrupted Democratic Party rule. ... Things have been good for the rats in Baltimore. For homo sapiens sapiens? Not so good. Drugs. Violence. Poverty. Squalor.”

Wow, they are somehow trying to link Nancy Pelosi to the rat problem too, I thought — even if it is one of the more bizarre and forced connections I have seen even among some of the strangest right-wing sites.

But there was nothing bizarre about Tucker Carlson picking up the Billions-to-Baltimore baton from Trump on his Tuesday night show. That’s what Carlson and Hannity and Laura Ingraham do almost every night on their prime-time Fox News platforms: spread the president’s lies, hate and propaganda to millions of viewers.

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As Carlson interviewed Baltimore City Council member Robert Stokes Sr., a banner across the bottom of the screen read: “Where’s The Cash?: Billions Spent on Baltimore." Stokes had a perfectly righteous talking point, and he stuck to it: To understand Baltimore’s problems, you have to look at “400 years of structural racism."

Carlson let Stokes make the statement but made it seem through his tone and responses as if Stokes was ducking the questions with an irrelevant or even off-the wall answer.

“Uh huh. OK. Ahem. OK,” Carlson began, acting like he was having a hard time processing what Stokes said. “That’s an, um, interesting topic, but it doesn’t quite get to the key question which is why have two mayors resigned, what happened to the money, why is the murder rate higher than in almost every other country on the planet. Ummmm. But what is the core problem in Baltimore, do you think?”

And behind such prime-time TV support, came a wall of social media slamming those who would attack Trump for his tweets. After writing a column Saturday calling Trump’s tweets racist and then going on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday to discuss, I have been bot-bombed on social media to extent I had not experienced since calling out Tomi Lahren, now a host at Fox Nation, for a racist tweet against Black Lives Matter.

(Did you see that Lahren is back in the news this week for an absolutely despicable tweet about Sen. Kamala Harris that I wouldn’t even think of repeating here?)

It might be blasphemy for a journalist who has always believed more in the power of words than almost anything else to say this, but after this last week, it does not feel as if there is anything that can be said to change the minds of people like Trump, Carlson, Hannity, Lahren and their followers, especially on topics like Baltimore and race.

Stereotypes have been defined as pictures that we have in our minds. Hopefully, as most of us engage the world, we take in new information, and adjust those pictures accordingly. That’s what education helps us do.

But that’s not what’s happening in the social media, cable TV and political silos too many Americans now call home. The only information being allowed in is that which reinforces the pictures in their heads, no matter how wrongheaded they might be.

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