Steven A. Holmes is a veteran journalist who worked at Time Magazine, The New York Times, where he was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and The Washington Post before he joined CNN, where he was a member of the Standards and Practices team until retiring a year ago. The views expressed here are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)Chris Wallace has the well-deserved reputation of a hard-hitting and fair journalist. He is one of the few at Fox News willing to bring as much heat to President Donald Trump as he is to any Democrat or progressive activist.
Steve HolmesThat doesn’t mean Wallace is immune to tone-deafness — especially when it comes to matters involving Black people.This week Wallace, who will moderate the highly anticipated first presidential debate, announced the general subject areas for the encounter between Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. The topics included: “The Trump and Biden Records,” “The Supreme Court,” “Covid-19,” “The Economy,” “The Integrity of the Election.”Then, there is this one: “Race and Violence in Our Cities.” Say what?Read MoreWallace’s framing of the topic of protests over police killing of Black people has drawn criticism — much of it partisan — that it is more akin to a Fox News chyron than a politically-neutral approach. Bend the Arc, a liberal Jewish organization, termed it “barely-coded language that reinforces anti-Black fear mongering.” Let me add my voice to this condemnation because Wallace’s framing is so wrong on so many levels.Wallace has the power to set public expectations on how the subjects will be debated by the way he tees them up. And, with regard to the issue of police brutality and public reaction to it, he has done so in a one-sided, intellectually lazy and racist manner.For starters, his approach is nakedly partisan and blatantly favorable to Trump. In the months since George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, the President has fought to keep the focus on the violence that has marred some of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality, rather than talking about the police misconduct that prompted the protests in the first place.Wallace’s framing follows in lockstep with Trump’s rhetoric, and it has the potential of forcing the discussion onto the President’s turf. It is equivalent to Wallace coming up with a subject called, say, “Presidential Character and Trump’s Lying.”Trump-Biden debate moderators face a huge challengeWallace’s approach also ties Black people to violence. It is telling that the only subject where Wallace mentions race involves violence perpetrated by or in the name of Black people, a framing made clear by including the phrase, “in our cities.”If Wallace wanted to bring forward the issue of politically inspired unrest, he could have framed it as “Violent Protests and Domestic Terrorism.” That way he could have invited participants to engage on both the torching of sections of Portland as well as white extremists marching in Charlottesville, or driving vehicles into crowds of peaceful demonstrators. But no, if it’s violence, it’s got to be Black people.And aren’t there a host of other ways to bring the issue of “race” into a presidential debate? How about “Blacks and Browns and the Economy?” Or maybe, “Racial Disparities in Health?” Are racial inequities in wealth and disparities in health outcomes — and the solutions to each — not worthy subjects of debate? Or is it just violence?And while we’re at it, can we stop with euphemisms? When Wallace use the term “race” he has, in this instance, fallen to the all-too-common habit of using the word to be talking about just Black people. Seldom is the term associated with the actions of White people; giving the strong impression that White people, unlike Blacks, Hispanics and Asians, have no race.Think about it. When someone puts up a headline or a chyron that says, “Race and Covid-19,” you can be sure the story or the discussion will be about the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people dying from coronavirus infection. It will not be about the mask-less White bikers rallying in Sturgis, South Dakota, or parties at White fraternity houses, or crowded pool bars during holidays at Lake of the Ozarks.Images of overwhelmingly White crowds flouting guidelines meant to stem the spread of Covid-19 have been blasted out on TV and on social media in recent months. But, somehow, the race of those engaging in these kinds of irresponsible behavior is not noted. Wallace, however, puts the race of those perpetrating violence stemming from BLM protests front and center, even if couched in euphemisms.Get our free weekly newsletter
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Coming up with and framing topics for a presidential debate is tough work. One most come up with framing that is as fair, accurate and sensitive as possible. Hard choices, both in subject matter and language need to be made. Critical subjects are sometimes left on the cutting room floor, as climate change was for this one.And considering that this first encounter between Trump and Biden will probably be the most watched ever, the pressure on Wallace and his other panelists is and will be intense.It is all the more reason for Wallace to bring his A game to his thinking about his role, and not to fall back on cliches and tropes. Unfortunately, that appears to be what he did, which is a shame.He’s a better journalist than that.