David Zurawik

Trump and the rise in vulgar, mean media talk

This story has been updated to reflect CNN's cancellation of "Believer with Reza Aslan" on Friday.

Last month, in the wake of CBS "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert describing President Donald Trump's mouth as a "c--- holster for Vladimir Putin," I thought we might be on a slippery slope when it comes to media language, values and standards.


These days, following comedian Kathy Griffin's photo shoot featuring a facsimile of a severed Trump head and CNN host Reza Aslan's tweet calling the president a "piece of s---," it feels like we are cascading head over heels down the side of the mainstream media mountain.

Apologies and clarifications were issued after all the incidents, including one last Sunday when a Fox News contributor talked about internment camps in connection with the latest London terrorist attack.


And there have been punishments. In addition to Griffin losing her New Year's Eve co-hosting gig on CNN last week, the channel also parted ways with Aslan on Friday. Katie McHugh, an editor at conservative news site Breitbart, said she was fired Monday for her London tweet: "There would be no deadly attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn't live there."

But there was no punishment from CBS for Colbert, whose attack on Trump was particularly vulgar and aggressive for network TV. Nor does there seem to be any societal sense of shock or condemnation after a few days of social media buzz.

What's going on in media and in society that has made the level of discourse so vulgar, combative, unrestrained and ugly – not just on premium cable, but basic cable and network TV as well? And who's to blame?

Like most media change in the last year, the answers start with Trump, whose presidency tests the press and shapes popular culture more profoundly than that of any other commander in chief of the modern era.

But it only starts with him. The change runs deeper than his presidency, and it demands that media executives, journalists, performers and citizens also do some soul searching about their role in debasing the national conversation. After all, it's hard to blame Trump for Bill Maher's shockingly casual use of the N-word on his HBO show "Real Time" on June 2.

Trump's tweets last Sunday in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on London Bridge offer a snapshot of how the bully pulpit of the presidency can still negatively shape a large part of the national conversation, despite all the media fragmentation of the last two decades. A little help from the media echo chamber can make the conversation even nastier.

Before all the facts were even confirmed as to how many died or were injured in London, Trump was on Twitter on June 3 politicizing the event.

"We need to be smart, vigilant and tough," he wrote. "We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!"


In this, his first tweet after the event, he was already lobbying to restore his executive-order travel ban on persons from six predominantly Muslim countries – the travel ban that members of his administration insisted wasn't a ban, but rather a "pause."

And then two tweets later, he went on the attack against the mayor of London and what he labeled political correctness.

"We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people," he tweeted. "If we don't get smart it will only get worse. At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is 'no reason to be alarmed!'"

London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, had told citizens of his city not to be alarmed by the heavy police presence they would see on the street. He did not tell them to let their guard down, as Trump suggested.

But by Sunday morning, Fox News was taking the president's words and hostile tone and amping them up even further for millions of viewers.

Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent, appeared as an expert on "Fox & Friends," to double down on Trump's talk about the need to "stop being politically correct."


"We've got to scrap this garbage political correctness," Bongino said.

But it was Nigel Farage, a right-wing U.K. politician and Fox contributor, who really took the ball and ran with it – telling American viewers that Trump was trying to protect them with his travel ban. He then went on to discuss the possibility of internment camps for Muslims in Britain.

While he ultimately questioned the political wisdom of such camps, another guest, Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins, said she supported them.

Such inflammatory talk had reached the point by 8:55 a.m., that Clayton Morris, one of the hosts on "Fox & Friends" issued what the channel characterized as a clarification.

"Earlier on the show, we had a couple of guests mention the word internment, the idea of internment camps, as a possible solution to this," he told viewers. "I think I made it well known my feeling on that, which I find reprehensible, but on behalf of the network, I think all of us here find that idea reprehensible here at Fox News Channel. Just to be clear."

Those feelings had not been made "well known," in my opinion, when the topic of camps was discussed earlier on the show – not once, but twice.


On the other hand, Aslan, host of CNN's "Believer with Reza Aslan," which the network describes as a "spiritual adventure" show on its website, certainly made his feelings about Trump's reaction to the London attacks crystal clear.

"This piece of s--- is a not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He's an embarrassment to humankind," Aslan tweeted.

The tweet was subsequently taken down, and he published an apology for his language but not for the sentiment.

"I should not have used a profanity to describe the President when responding to his shocking reaction to the #LondonAttacks," Azlan tweeted.

"That's not like me," he added in an explanatory statement. "I should have used better language to express my shock and frustration at the president's lack of decorum and sympathy for the victims of London. I apologize for my choice of words."

CNN's statement on Aslan's cancellation Friday said: "CNN has decided to not move forward with production on the acquired series 'Believer with Reza Aslan.' We wish Reza and his production team all the best."


Aslan issued a statement saying he understands CNN's "need to maintain its brand as an unbiased new source" but that he hopes to find a new platform for his show that allows him to "honor" his voice.

As opposed to CNN, CBS did nothing in response to Colbert's remarks.

The comedian addressed the backlash to his comments two nights later in his monologue. He apologized only for the description of Trump's mouth, which some considered homophobic.

"I don't regret that," he said of his attack on Trump. "I believe he can take care of himself. … So, while I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be. Now I'm not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say, for the record, life is short, and anybody who expresses their love for another person in their own way, is to me an American hero."

When mainstream media corporations say nothing as CBS did in the wake of a Colbert's vulgar insult, a signal is sent that traditional rules regarding what's acceptable no longer apply.

But we can't solely blame media companies any more than we can blame it all on Trump himself.


In the end, it's down to each of us.

Even if Trump is as vile as his worst critics allege, we in the professional media and citizens on social media do not have to respond at such a crude, combative and ugly level. It demeans us and debases American culture. We become as bad as or worse than the object of our scorn.

Should Aslan find another platform, do I really want to watch a religion and spirituality program featuring a guy who calls people pieces of s---? Will I ever not suspect that maybe Colbert is homophobic? Is this the kind of nation we want to be?

Management at the New York Times made the major decision this year to call Trump a liar in its news pages. But it did so only after chronicling some of his lies. And it did that with outstanding, fact-checked investigative reporting.

Show the best of yourself, not the worst, in confronting Trump. Don't post vulgar, emotional reactions on Twitter and then delete them and offer weasel-word apologies.

I believe Trump's belligerent, angry, social-media stoked candidacy and presidency have triggered something dark in the culture – something that reminds me of the helter-skelter sense of American life in the late 1960s. Trump is surely responsible in part for that.


But that something isn't suddenly released from the mouth of hell. It's in us, and we are the ones ultimately responsible for understanding and controlling it.