Margaret Sullivan: Trump won’t stop coining nasty nicknames for his foes, but the media must stop amplifying them

(Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP) President Donald Trump speaks about modernizing the immigration system in the Rose Garden of the White House, on Thursday, May 16, 2019, in Washington.

I was talking to an acquaintance recently about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

He liked the Massachusetts Democrat’s detailed policies and was impressed with her recent CNN town hall presentation.

But he couldn’t back the senator because she doesn’t really stand a chance in the 2020 contest. Why not, I asked.

He answered me with a rueful shrug, accompanied by one word: “Pocahontas.”

That, of course, is the nickname President Donald Trump has tagged Warren with — a reference to her having claimed American Indian ancestry, including on law school faculty forms in the 1980s. (She does have some such ancestry, but not very much, a DNA test revealed; Warren says she was merely repeating family lore.)

This episode was certainly not Warren’s finest hour — but hardly something that should be disqualifying, especially when compared to the horror show of deceit that is Trump himself.

But the nickname has stuck. And some people can’t get beyond it — any more than they can get beyond “Crooked Hillary” or the multitude of other slams from “Crazy Bernie” for the Vermont senator to “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz of Texas. Or, for that matter, the “Failing New York Times” — which, of course, it isn’t.

Trump has a kind of dark intuitive genius for these coinages, something he’s been plying for decades. (Back in the 1980s, Trump-the-developer referred to then-state assemblyman Jerry Nadler, now House Judiciary chairman, as “Fat Jerry” or “Waddler.”)

“Consciously or not, Trump is feeding us nuggets packed with enormous linguistic power,” Jon Allsop wrote in 2017 in Columbia Journalism Review.

“They appeal to a childlike desire to make an easily digestible morality tale of a complicated world.”

They are often false and always meant to bully. And the news media must stop trafficking in them.

Journalists may not be able to ignore these nicknames altogether, but they should stop doing Trump’s dirty work for him: amplifying their power through prominent placement and frequent, unquestioning repetition.

When Trump recently tagged Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., with the nickname “Alfred E. Neuman” — an effort to make the Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan war veteran into a buffoon — the news media responded as it often does to Trumpian distractions: with a full round of breathless, clickable coverage.

Some of media attention focused on the presidential candidate’s response — that Buttigieg had to research the name of the Mad Magazine cover boy. That was followed by Mad Magazine’s riposte that they had to look up who Buttigieg was. And on it went.

All told, it was all less harmful, probably, than Trump’s recently coined name for former Vice President Joe Biden — “SleepyCreepy Joe.” The worse the perceived political threat, perhaps, the more vicious the nickname.

The media, though, largely treats these labels as entertainment, wrote Allsop more recently — “not the subtle, dangerous manipulation of political discourse they actually represent.”

And while Trump’s legion of critics see his risible hair and puffed-up ego as fodder for taunts (like “Cheeto Jesus,” in author Rick Wilson’s phrase), the news media rarely stoop to repeating them.

It’s high time to recognize what’s going on here, and to do something about it.

I often hear from readers and from anti-Trump voters that news organizations should ignore Trump’s tweets, or give him far less attention. In other words, they should cut off his oxygen supply of attention.

I can’t agree. What the president of the United States says, even in a tweet, amounts to an official statement. We need to cover them, and him, rigorously and thoroughly.

But just as we’ve learned to fact-check Trump — and call out his lies when appropriate — we need to learn to stop amplifying these poisonous nicknames.

Cover them as part of a story? Examine and analyze them? Sure.

But don’t constantly repeat them, don’t treat them as “all in good fun.”

And don’t give them prominence without context.

Never again should one of these nicknames appear in the following ways: In a headline. In a media organization’s tweet. In a bottom-of-the-screen TV chyron. In a news alert.

It’s in those minimalist settings that they do the most harm.

Trump, of course, has his own powerful megaphones on social media and in his rallies and speeches.

And, granted, politics is a rough-and-tumble business, not known for its emphasis on civility and decency. The knives are always out.

But when the news media turn on their brightest spotlights, these nicknames take on greater credibility and power. As propaganda always does, they sink into our consciousness as something that feels like a kind of truth.

That makes journalists complicit in Trump’s insidious ways. His jokes were never funny, and shouldn’t be treated as if they are.