A New York Times reporter traveled to New Carlisle, Ohio, for “hours of face-to-face conversation” with a “Nazi sympathizer.” He then filed a story under this strong headline, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.”
And then the cognoscenti roared its disapproval.
It is definitely responsible to profile a Nazi as if he’s just an odd curiosity and not part of a violent and dangerous movement. https://t.co/0gJuaCpd0v
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) November 25, 2017
The problem with this article isn't that it's about a Nazi but that it doesn't add anything to our understanding of modern Nazis. Of course racists shop at supermarkets and play in bands and enjoy Seinfeld and own cats. That evil is also banal is not new. https://t.co/bOIQU4pOzu
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) November 25, 2017
The journalist in me understands that your job sometimes is to explain why awful people are so awful. It’s a delicate process. It’s a fine line between explaining and giving hateful people a platform that normalizes their hate. Swing and a miss, here https://t.co/KkEE2rmhTv
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) November 25, 2017
Let me explain to some of you why this is trash & why the NYTs needs more people of color at the decision making table: 1st this is “reporting” on something that IS NOT FREAKING NORMAL, but the profile in & of it self, normalizes white nationalism. https://t.co/cjnHubbR74
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) November 25, 2017
A meta-narrative in the story, by Richard Fausset, explains much of the rage. It profiles 29-year-old Tony Hovater and starts with this fine bit of feature writing:
Tony and Maria Hovater were married this fall. They registered at Target. On their list was a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer.
Ms. Hovater, 25, was worried about Antifa bashing up the ceremony. Weddings are hard enough to plan for when your fiancé is not an avowed white nationalist.
Significant chunks of the piece follow suit, as Fausset explains how the white nationalist loves “Seinfeld,” has four cats and otherwise does things that human beings do. Right there in the text, Fausset acknowledges that this very treatment is a goal of white nationalists. “‘We need to have more families. We need to be able to just be normal,’ said Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, in a podcast conversation with Mr. Hovater. Why, he asked self-mockingly, were so many followers ‘abnormal’?” The ending of the story doesn’t feel so abnormal:
The pasta was ready. Ms. Hovater talked about how frightening it was this summer to watch from home as the Charlottesville rally spun out of control. Mr. Hovater said he was glad the movement had grown.
They spoke about their future — about moving to a bigger place, about their honeymoon, about having kids.
In fairness to the New York Times, the story did alight on the horrific reality of white nationalism. A Facebook post, for example, daydreamed about the wonderful, white America that would have arisen if only Germany had prevailed in World War II. After the Charlottesville rally in August, in which a suspected white nationalist allegedly used his vehicle to ram a group of protesters, killing a woman, Hovater wrote, “We made history. Hail victory.”
Yet the New York Times itself beat its critics to the story about the profile’s shortcomings. In the Times Insider section — a place where reporters write about their stories — Fausset acknowledged a “hole at the heart” of the story on Hovater. After the first draft of his piece, Fausset noted, his editor cited a omission: What had prompted Hovater to “take his ideas beyond his living room, beyond the chat rooms, and on to Charlottesville, where he marched in August alongside allies like the neo-Confederate League of the South and the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement, which bills itself as ‘America’s Premier White Civil Rights Organization’? Where was his Rosebud?”
To fill this void, Fausset rang up Hovater, even though the two had held extensive discussions in Ohio. The subject didn’t much help things. “So I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them. I could feel the failure even as Mr. Hovater and I spoke on the phone,” writes Fausset in his story about the story.
And so the New York Times published the story anyhow. That makes little sense: This is a newspaper, after all, that prides itself on giving its reporters the time and resources to place fully realized pieces of journalism into print. Whether the topic is allegations of Bill O’Reilly’s sexually harassing ways, allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexually harassing ways, Hillary Clinton’s emails or any number of other pursuits, reporters commonly get the time and space to produce lasting work. In this case, however, Fausset & Co. decided they’d done their best: “I beat myself up about all of this for a while, until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect,” writes Fausset in the Times Insider piece. “What I had were quotidian details, though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to. Like other committed extremists I have known, Mr. Hovater had little time for a life beyond his full-time job and his line of activism. When he is not doing those things, he likes to be at home with his girlfriend (now his wife) and their cats.”
Perhaps Hovater himself wasn’t the best authority on his own radicalization. Perhaps family members would have been more forthcoming on the matter, or former classmates, neighbors — someone else. For a fine example of how multiple sources are required to account for something like this, please see Luke O’Brien’s story in the Atlantic about alt-right troll Andrew Anglin — whose preschool teacher is quoted in the piece. A profile of Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party by The Washington Post’s Joe Heim also takes a bio-investigative approach. More multi-sourced solidity: ProPublica recently published an investigation of a hate group that participated in the Charlottesville violence in August.
All of which is to say that the best way to avoid normalizing white nationalists is to report about their deeds, their friends, their families and their beliefs, and to not give up after an unsatisfactory phone call.