"Yellow Teeth" and Descriptive Journalism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In my recent dispatch from a Donald Trump rally in South Carolina, I described one of Trump’s supporters, Michael Barnhill, as “a 67-year-old factory supervisor with a leathery complexion and yellow teeth.” A lot of readers wrote or tweeted to complain about this description. The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto also took issue with it, comparing it to Trump’s mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski:

Media types are not above the sort of bullying they find so abhorrent when Trump does it…. Michael Barnhill is an ordinary citizen taking part in politics. Unlike Serge Kovaleski, he does not have the benefit of spokesmen to express institutional outrage when somebody publicly ridicules his appearance. Ball’s nasty treatment of Barnhill, of course, does not excuse the ugly aspects of Trump’s behavior. But it does help demonstrate why Trump and his supporters—as well as conservatives who don’t care for Trump—often feel put upon by the media.

I am sorry so many people felt I was picking on Barnhill, a genial man who kindly posed for a picture with his wonderful new button (“TRUMP 2016: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS”) and talked to me at length about his support for Trump. In retrospect, I can see why my description struck people as a gratuitous attempt to caricature Trump supporters. But my intent was only to describe him frankly, in order to give readers a visual entry into the scene. I frequently use these little details to bring a story to life, and if you read on in the Trump piece you’ll find that I describe people’s clothes, eyes, and stature, in ways intended to be vivid but nonjudgmental.

In general, I think journalists ought to be free to describe what they see, including people, without that being read as some sort of criticism. I’ve described Trump’s “perpetually nonplussed duckface” and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “hooded eyes and dour countenance.” My own teeth are rather yellowish, among my other unattractive features, and I like to think I wouldn’t take offense if someone pointed that out; it’s just a fact. I particularly dislike the constant policing of journalistic descriptions of women politicians, which research has shown is not sexist. As reporters, we have to be able to tell people what we see in the most honest way we can.

Still, people are sensitive about the way they look, and it’s possible I’m less sensitive than I could be to that fact, particularly when it comes to people who aren’t public figures. (I caught some flak a few years ago for describing a waitress’s “bad skin” in an article on a Senate candidate in Ohio.) In Barnhill’s case, this was particularly unfortunate because it undermined what I was trying to do in the piece: I wanted to humanize Trump’s supporters, who have been so often discussed by those who don't share their enthusiasm as some sort of alien force. They are not. They are, as I wrote, your friends and neighbors. Your fellow Americans.