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When It Comes To Reporting On Nasty Demagogues, We Have No Idea What Works Anymore

The New York Times public editor can't even figure out what to do about Steve Bannon!
When It Comes To Reporting On Nasty Demagogues, We Have No Idea What Works Anymore
Image from: New York Times

This piece by New York Times public editor Liz Spayd is not going over well:

IF you have not yet heard the term “alt-right,” you most likely are living in another orbit. It is the chosen name of an extremist fringe with white supremacy at its roots. It is also a label many consider dangerous because it sanitizes the movement’s racist core. And if the media uses the word, they think, then they’re part of the problem.

As the fire rages, The New York Times has become ground zero.

... so far, there is no move among top editors to ban it. Instead, their thinking is: You can use the phrase in a story, but make sure you include a blunt explanation of its meaning.

There's that, and there's Spayd's defense of some recent Timesreporting on Steve Bannon:

Scott Shane, a veteran reporter, produced a significant investigative piece on Trump’s most controversial adviser, Stephen Bannon. Through rigorous reporting and revelatory details, a portrait of Bannon emerged that was fascinating, original, and yet not neatly characterized. The story didn’t call Bannon a racist, a demerit in the eyes of some readers. And the headline used the phrase “Combative Populist.” Another demerit.

... Readers ... complained to my office, some with passionate responses, like that of Paul Kingsley of Rochester. “Steve Bannon could accurately be referred to as a racist, a misogynist, or a xenophobe,” Kingsley wrote. “It is inaccurate to refer to him as a ‘populist.’ Inherent in the definition is to represent ‘ordinary people’; Bannon’s views are extreme and anything but ‘normal.’ The NYT referring to him thusly normalizes his views and does the majority of people, who would not claim his hateful rhetoric as their own, a disservice.”

Kingsley’s point is worthy of discussion, but I had a different reaction to the story. When I read it, I trusted my narrator more because he wrote without judgment or loaded terms. He let me judge. And he wasn’t afraid to use nuance when it was called for, which in this age is braver than flat-out proclaiming someone a racist.

Go here for some critical tweetstorms.

My complaint when the piece landed was that it gave too many column inches to Bannon's own myth of himself as a patriotic, tough-minded scourge of the establishment. But if you read the whole thing, you know that Bannon's racist views came through:

[Julia] Jones, [Bannon's] film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’"

I don't think it's a virtue to write about a purveyor of hate speech "without judgment or loaded terms," but if you're going to make that choice, you'd better be sure the facts speak for themselves -- and in Shane's piece, they do, at least some of the time. I can live with that.

Is it necessary to call Bannon a racist in a piece in which his racism is on display? After the events of the past year, I have no idea. What I mean is I have no idea anymore what works, what in a work of journalism gets across the nature of a bad person.

Do we remember the moment when there seemed to be a sincere effort in the media to refer to Donald Trump's lies as lies, to portray him as remarkably untruthful even by the usual standards of politics? We thought he'd made it through the primaries because coverage of him was too gentle; we believed his election would be thwarted by gloves-off treatment of his mendacity (and his bigotry, and his harsh treatment of women, and his corrupt business practices).

It didn't work. He still became our next president. The tougher coverage didn't disqualify him in the eyes of 62 million voters, and may have made some of them more determined to vote for him.

So I think it's necessary for the press to tell us about the profound character flaws of Bannon, Trump, and others in Trump's administration. But putting LIAR or RACIST in big screaming letters in a headline doesn't seem to make any positive difference. Too many Americans just don't have a problem with racism, or with lies or sexual thuggery or fraud if the perpetrator is an SOB they like.

Crossposted at No More Mister Nice Blog

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