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Opinion PBS issues second editor’s note on Trump-supporter’s white-supremacist tattoos

Donald Trump in Ohio on Monday. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
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Tonight’s broadcast of PBS NewsHour will feature a statement on the outlet’s recent story about the pro-Trump activities of a North Carolina family — a development that follows on the issuance of a second editor’s note in the controversy. As reported by Gawker, the NewsHour story profiled 33-year-old Grace Tilly and her family, though it failed to alert viewers to the meaning of the tattoos on her hands, which Gawker described as “white power” symbols.

As we noted earlier, Tilly’s right hand has Celtic Cross, among the most “commonly used white supremacist symbols,” according to an Anti-Defamation League official consulted by Gawker. Her left hand was emblazoned with “88,” code among white supremacists for “Heil Hitler,” according to the Anti-Defamation League’s website.

The story itself profiled the Tilly family in their own words — that is, there is no reporter’s voice in the piece, just the Tillys talking about Trump and America, presumably in response to questions from a PBS staffer. That point is a central part of a PBS’s editor’s note responding to the Gawker piece:

Editor’s Note: At several times during this campaign the NewsHour has featured video packages of voices of voters, profiling different families and their views on the candidates and how they have arrived at them. These reports have been presented without reporters’ narration. It is true that this storytelling style requires the audience to draw its own conclusions about what they see and hear, but we believe the audience is able to do so.
In this case, a debate about Grace Tilly’s tattoos has started online. As you can see in the comments section posted with this story, Ms. Tilly argues that these tattoos are not representative of neo-Nazi positions but are connected to her family’s Celtic religious beliefs. That is what she told our producers as well. Others among our online commenters vehemently disagree.
The headline on this transcript has been updated to more accurately represent the video segment.

Bolding added to highlight a very critical part of this editor’s note: It appears to suggest that the producers asked Grace Tilly about this matter prior to the story’s airing. Or at least it is not specific and clear about when the producers discussed the matter with her. Now a second editor’s note has appeared on the story, and it makes this point explicit:

Editor’s Note: In our report Tuesday night on a North Carolina family that’s supporting Donald Trump, we were continuing a long NewsHour tradition of talking directly to voters.
We want to hear from them, in their own voices, speaking about what motivates their political preferences.
Regrettably, none of us at the NewsHour recognized the questions that could arise from Grace Tilly’s tattoos, and we didn’t raise them with her until after the report aired. At that point, our producer contacted Ms. Tilly and she insisted the tattoos are religious in nature and have nothing to do with a neo-Nazi theme or white supremacy.
We referenced her comments in an editor’s note, posted on our website.
Many of our online commenters have since let us know they reject that explanation. We’re now posting this note as a follow up.
We at the NewsHour remain committed to being as transparent as possible in covering this election.

This is what someone ID’d as “Grace” said in the comments section of the story:

My tattoo is and will always be taken way out of context and I wouldn’t expect close minded individuals to understand why I put that tattoo on my hand where everyone can see it. It is Odins eyeand means protection to me and it is religious, it is not my fault that certain people use it in a negative manner and for the wrong reasons. You should quit quoting the first thing that pops up on Google and reeducate yourself before you go on blabbering about something that you actually don’t have an effing clue about.

Also this:

Luis it’s odins eye and it really represents to me and my family protection, and the lengths that Odin took and went to gain the knowledge of the runes….now it means much more along those lines but you could look it up yourself….just type odins eye/Norse next to it and you will see what it means, that its why I have it on my hand….protection…..the search for the supreme knowledge in things that are truly important to us….that’s why I have it on my hand so people can see it…and no just because some misguided people have a misguided opinion about its meaning, is not reason enough for me not to put it there.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, has studied these symbols. He maintains a database of hate insignia and brushes off Tilly’s explanations that her tattoos don’t represent white supremacy. “Those are very blatant white supremacy tattoos … somebody having both of them displayed so prominently — it’s just not possible to rationalize those away.”

Yet Pitcavage isn’t hammering PBS over its omissions. “The fact is that most people are not aware of most hate symbols. Once you get beyond the simple things such as a swastika … or KKK, the knowledge drops off a cliff,” says Pitcavage.

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Given the type of campaign that Donald Trump has run, it’s little wonder that he has fans among white supremacists. Former KKK member David Duke has endorsed the real-estate mogul, who at first disavowed the endorsement and then waffled on the matter. Trump himself has retweeted white supremacist commentary on Twitter. He has called Mexicans “rapists” and called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

When journalists interview voters at campaign-trail events, they generally don’t have the time to conduct background checks. In the case of a feature profile of a family on a prominent TV outlet, however, the investigative threshold inches up. Check out your profile subjects, especially if they support Donald Trump.