Guardian US and WNYC’s On the Media collaborated on a radio episode looking the coverage of neo-Nazis and white nationalists
In August, hundreds of white men with torches marched across the University of Virginia campus. They chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” and fought with counter-protesters in the streets.
The footage and photographs from the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left people around the world shaken. These were white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching proudly in public, faces bare, in support of an openly fascist ideology.
For months before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, news outlets had been profiling the emboldened racist extremists who had celebrated the election of Donald Trump. The coverage had often sparked backlash, with readers across the political spectrum arguing that fringe racists were being given too much of a platform, and that media coverage was blowing their influence out of proportion.
Charlottesville made clear that far-right groups were a serious, violent threat. But it did not put an end to the debates over media coverage of these groups – and the fierce criticism when news organizations produced coverage that readers saw as too “normalizing”.
What happened at the Charlottesville protests?
Guardian US and WNYC’s On the Media have collaborated on a radio episode looking at these debates over the coverage of America’s emboldened racist extremists. How should news organizations cover neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups? What does it take to cover them accurately – without simply giving them a platform for their ideas?
The episode brings together historians of American racism with seven reporters who have covered the far right over the past year. Together, they weigh in on the common mistakes journalists and editors make – and the false assumptions about racism at the root of many of these errors.
“I found myself at this fancy party in New York and there were all these fancy liberals and they wanted to talk to me about Charlottesville,” said Elle Reeve, a correspondent for Vice News Tonight, which produced the acclaimed 2017 documentary Charlottesville: Race and Terror, documenting the August Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“No matter how many times I told them that these guys were not poor, they kept saying: ‘Well, you know, whatever economic suffering has caused them to adopt racism, that’s unfortunate.’ No, these guys are like you. They are like you. They are from New Jersey. They went to prep school. They live on the Upper East Side. And it’s very hard for white liberals to accept that.”
Dr Ibram X Kendi, the founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, said the assumption that racism grows out of ignorance is an old trope – and a false one.
“The reality is actually quite the opposite. Those who are producing racist ideas were doing so to justify existing policies that typically benefited them,” Kendi said.
But blaming racism on ignorance has continued to be a popular move – even for some anti-racist activists.
“When you make it about ignorance, you’re also making it about individual people and you’re not making it about power and policy and structures and systems. That the problem centrally is not America’s institutions. It’s not the American story,” he said. “It allows people to deny how fundamental racism has historically been to America.”
There were common threads in the journalists’ advice: coverage of these groups needs a more defensive mindset, with more of an expectation than usual that subjects may lie and deceive; a deeper sense of the history and context of extremist organizing; more acknowledgement of the connections between fringe extremist groups and mainstream racism; and an awareness of how much even critical coverage of these groups can amplify their messages and increase their reach.
“The Klan will put some flyers on some cars in a parking lot in Raleigh, North Carolina, and all the journalists go there to cover the Klan, and that’s well and good, but we need to talk about the bigger issue, about how what they say and what they believe has made its way into the mainstream,” said Vegas Tenold, a reporter who chronicles his six years reporting on the American far right in his new book, Everything You Love Will Burn.
Almost none of this debate over how to cover racist extremists is new. Dr Felix Harcourt, the author of Ku Klux Kulture, weighs in on how an almost identical debate over how the media should cover racist extremists played out in the early 1920s, after a newspaper’s attempt to expose the KKK ended up inadvertently boosting the organization’s membership by hundreds of thousands of people.
Doing this reporting accurately today, according to journalists who cover the far right as a beat, requires an understanding of how neo-Nazis have weaponized irony as a political strategy.
“A lot of reporters don’t have a strong internet fluency so they don’t understand things like trolling, and they’re unable to find the places where Nazis are talking to each other,” said Anna Merlan, a reporter for Gizmodo Media’s special projects desk.
“I understand the urge to ridicule these guys,” Reeve said. “Absolutely … It’s easier to laugh at them as basement-dwelling losers. But first of all they’re beating you to the punch on that joke and second, basement-dwelling losers vote. Just because they have an ideology that’s morally bankrupt does not mean they’re stupid.
“White male journalists are particularly vulnerable to the idea that these guys are fighting for free speech,” she added. “Understand that they don’t actually believe in free speech. They’re truly fascist. If they were in charge there would be no bill of rights. They make fun of that. They know how to manipulate you. Don’t be a sucker to that.”
- Lois Beckett, who covers the far right for Guardian US, guest-hosts the episode, which also features the Guardian’s Gary Younge; Al Letson, the host of Reveal, a public radio show from the Center for Investigative Reporting; and Josh Harkinson, who wrote a series of articles on the alt-right for Mother Jones, including the profile of Richard Spencer trailed on Twitter as being about a “dapper white nationalist”.