Christian Christensen is professor of journalism studies at Stockholm University. His work focuses on the relationship between technology, journalism and political power. Twitter: @chrchristensen
We find ourselves in yet another Trump outrage cycle.
After famously calling Haiti, El Salvador and the entire continent of Africa “shitholes,” there is a high level of righteous indignation among media outlets against Trump. This will dissipate, soon to be replaced by a new, improved outrage.
“Trump’s comments last night were jarring to many. They should be. But they should also be a reminder that the bigotry Trump leverages does not emerge from a vacuum.”
What is noteworthy about many of these cycles of condemnation is that Trump is often leveraging stereotypes and imagery that the media have been supplying to the US (and global) population for decades. But this fact is rarely, if ever, addressed. Instead, there is anger against the President, but without any semblance of context or contrition about the role of media in enabling bigoted worldviews.
When, for example, Trump exploited the virulent strands of Islamophobia running through US society during his campaign and with his so-called “Muslim Ban,” many in the mainstream US press refused to address the fact that the biases and stereotypes Trump exploited—the Muslim terrorist, the indifferent killer, the mysterious Arab Other—were the same pumped out via popular culture into US homes and cinemas for decades, as well as by the US news media after September 11, 2001, during the occupation and ultimate destruction of Iraq and the subsequent “War on Terror.”
Now, with Trump’s outrageous “”shithole” comment, we are again faced with the uncomfortable fact that the framing of entire sections of the world as dirty, backward, disease-ridden wastelands did not begin at Trump’s inauguration. This has been, and is, a picture of the world painted by the US media for decades.
The creation of global “shitholes”— from Africa to Central and South America to portions of Asia—was achieved primarily via a combination of “crisis journalism” and non-coverage. For decades (and up to the present day), massive portions of Africa only received coverage if there was a war, famine, or natural catastrophe. In the absence of disasters, the coverage disappeared. Without mass death or armed conflict, Africa, and huge sections of the globe, largely cease to exist.
“The creation of global ‘shitholes’— from Africa to Central and South America to portions of Asia—was achieved primarily via a combination of ‘crisis journalism’ and non-coverage.”
Consider Haiti. Other than the massive earthquake that devastated the island and political upheaval, how much coverage does it get? Little to none. How about Trump’s other “shithole,” El Salvador? Coverage in the 1980s about war (fuelled by the US), but other than that? Not much. Think about the avalanche of coverage given to famine and war in Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s: how many articles went beyond crisis to touch upon daily life? How about the years the media spent “covering” Iraq, a country destroyed by the US, and how little we know other than the fact that people died?
So, crisis journalism plus non-coverage is a recipe ripe for exploitation by Trump and his supporters. Then, throw in the fact that these are often nations with non-white populations, and the implications are clear. These are presented as backward countries where nothing happens except death and disaster. There is no culture to speak of. No art. No music. No tight social structures. No intellectual life. No spirituality. We know noting about them. They are what Dubravka Ugrešić described as “empty mental spaces.”
When Trump compared his “shitholes” to Norway, he was saying that there are people in this world who are better than others. They are worth more. Europe is light. It is whiteness.
We see this pattern repeated regularly.
When a bomb goes off in London killing one, it is news 24/7 for a week. This is Europe. This is civilization. Whiteness. When a bomb goes off in Baghdad killing one hundred people it might get a mention lower down on the homepage, then it’s gone. That is not Europe. That is not civilization. Otherness.
The argument is made that people in the US feel news from London is “more relevant,” so they are more interested in what happens there than in Baghdad. Well, take that theory and ask yourself why the US media didn’t give more coverage to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed as a direct result of US intervention. What? Not enough dead? Direct US responsibility didn’t make it “relevant” enough to a US audience?
No. The reason was simple. Iraq is one of the “shitholes” whose dead, non-European citizens were not worthy of our media attention.
Trump’s comments last night were jarring to many. They should be. But they should also be a reminder that the bigotry Trump leverages does not emerge from a vacuum. It is part of our collective history, from colonialism to contemporary media. It is a history we must confront, not hide.
Top photo: Destroyed buildings pictured six months after the beginning of the U.S.-supported Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip in 2015. (Photo: Oxfam International)