Donald Trump visits Poland: Looking for religion (and old-school journalism) in the coverage

So, what was that Donald Trump speech in Poland all about?

If you follow social media -- the cutting edge of today's new New Journalism -- you know that it was about the president trying to sneak encoded "dogwhistle" content past media gatekeepers to his supporters on the fringes of the postmodern world.

Consider this tweet by Jamelle Bouie, the top political correspondent at Slate and an analyst for CBS News, that said:

Later, he notes: "Like, this s*** is barely subtle."

Here's the opening of the nasty speech passage, from the White House transcript:

Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. (Applause.) If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.

Trump talks about all kinds of issues that flow out of that statement, including the rule of law and women's rights. But it's clear -- in social-media land -- that his speech was seen as an outrageous attack on immigrants and the Islamic world.

This is perfectly stated by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic:

The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech -- perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime -- was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. ... Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The “south” and “east” only threaten the West’s “survival” if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders.

But what, you ask, does the basic news coverage say?

To which, in this case, I sadly respond: What does news coverage have to do with this? We are talking about TRUMP in POLAND. You know what that means. We are talking about the hero of the alt-right trying to fan the flames of nationalism in the worst nation in Europe (from the point of view of European elites).

So who cares about old-school news coverage, anymore? In fact, I hunted around on The Washington Post website and I couldn't find a basic, balanced news report anywhere about the contents of this speech.

Some major newspapers did cover the speech and we will get to that in a moment.

But first, I want to thank Rod "Friend of this blog" Dreher for posting the following at his weblog and asking the simple question: Does this sound like alt-right material?

I know that this First Things passage is long, but I think it's crucial, for those trying to understand why many journalists are so upset about this latest clash between new Europe and old Europe. Again, does this language sound alt-right to you?

The last element of the European identity is religion. I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.
This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.
Multiculturalism, which is so passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own things. Multiculturalism teaches us to approach the sacred things of others with respect, but we can do this only if we ourselves are not estranged from the sacred, from God. With regard to others, it is our duty to cultivate within ourselves respect for the sacred and to show the face of the revealed God—the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for widows and orphans, for the foreigner; the God who is so human that he himself became man, a man who suffered, and who by his suffering with us gave dignity and hope to our pain.
Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe.

So who is speaking?

That would be Pope Benedict XVI, of course, who has spent his academic and ecclesiastical life in Germany and Italy -- at the heart of the evolving debates about European identity. Is what Benedict was saying the same thing as what Trump is saying?

I don't think so. Still, it's clear that the president delivered this speech in Poland -- a nation that many consider in rebellion against modern Europe -- for a reason. Is Poland's national character linked to religion, as much as to politics? Of course it is. Did that affect the content of this speech? I would think so.

Let's see if that shows up in the coverage by, well, political reporters.

At the Los Angeles Times, it was clear that this was a speech about immigration, race and Islam. Here is the key passage in a news report that is not labeled as analysis (I urge you to search for attribution clauses):

The speech marked a shift from the rhetorical stance Trump took just a few weeks ago when he was in Saudi Arabia. In a speech on terrorism in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, he said that “this is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
The more pointed language of his Warsaw speech reflected the influence of the two strongest advocates of populist nationalism among Trump’s advisors, his strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and his policy advisor, Stephen Miller, who wrote much of the speech. Although Miller had a strong hand in the Saudi speech as well, the language in that address was heavily negotiated in advance.
Trump’s words also departed sharply from the approach taken by his predecessors. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama repeatedly rejected the idea that the fight against terrorism should be seen as a battle between the West and Islam or any other culture.

Meanwhile, here is the lede in the New York Times story focusing on the content of the speech:

WARSAW -- President Trump said on Thursday that Western civilization was at risk of decline, bringing a message about “radical Islamic terrorism” and “the creep of government bureaucracy” to a European capital he views as hospitable to his nationalist message. ...
Mr. Trump roused his Polish hosts by recounting the country’s history of resistance to invaders, including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But he said nothing about the right-wing government’s crackdown on judges and journalists and its refusal to accept more migrants, policies that have upset European Union leaders. He instead praised Poland as a defender of liberty in the face of existential threats.

As it should, the story contained lots of commentary from critics of the Trump speech and of Poland, in general. Did anyone speak on the other side, perhaps from the various points of view inside the Catholic church in Poland? Not that I could see.

Always remember: Politics is real. Religion? Not so much (unless religion has a negative impact on political issues).

I also thought that this was an interesting exchange, in terms of letting readers know what Trump did not do, as opposed to symbolic acts that he did include in his schedule.

Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, and other Jewish leaders criticized Mr. Trump’s decision not to visit a monument to the 1943 ghetto uprising.
Every American president and vice president who has visited Warsaw since the fall of Communism in 1989 has visited the monument. “We deeply regret that President Donald Trump, though speaking in public barely a mile away from the monument, chose to break with that laudable tradition, alongside so many other ones,” the statement read. “We trust that this slight does not reflect the attitudes and feelings of the American people.”

This is a totally valid issue. However, there is this:

Hours after the Jewish leaders issued their rebuke, the White House sent word that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, who is an observant Jew, had visited the ghetto site and laid a wreath at the monument there, visiting the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. In a statement distributed to reporters, Ms. Trump said her visit was “a deeply moving experience.”

Maybe I am wrong, but that Times language almost suggests that the Ivanka visit to the monument was added to the schedule AFTER the rebuke from the rabbis. Is that true? I would assume these schedules are arranged pretty far in advance and that it would be relatively easy to fact check that.

Meanwhile, you can see the same politics-above-all approach in a second Times report about the speech, which ran with this headline: "Warm Reception for Trump as He ‘Hit Poland’s Most Profound Notes’." Once again, look for clear statements of attribution in this crucial passage in this hard-news story:

As for Poland’s government, which has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union and others for moves that they say erode the rule of law, the American president’s visit was a chance to prove that Poland has powerful friends who share its nationalist vision.
In his speech on Thursday, not a word of concern about respect for the rule of law escaped President Trump’s lips, to the delight of the leaders of Law and Justice, Poland’s right-wing governing party.
The event was a bit stage-managed. Allies of the Law and Justice Party had bused hundreds of its supporters from the countryside into the more liberal capital.
But there is no doubt that many of President Trump’s themes -- immigration, for instance -- have broad support in Poland, and his brand of nationalism feels very familiar here.

Am I arguing that these political concerns are not valid? Of course not. However, is there any way to talk about current tensions between Poland and the rest of Europe without talking about religion? Of course not.

So, would the coverage of this speech, and this presidential visit to Poland, have been different if religion-beat professionals had been involved (especially reporters with experience covering Catholicism)? I would think so.

The bottom line: Why assume that the religious issues linked to this speech are merely political issues, in disguise? Why not let reporters cover both?

FIRST IMAGE: Screen grab from White House video materials.

Please respect our Commenting Policy