[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]
All reporting is like a mirror: If it’s distorted or at an odd angle, it’s not a true picture, even if it tells us something. Reporting on the American extremist right, especially its darker and more toxic corners, is an especially difficult thing, as the New York Times recently discovered, because it’s so very hard to focus on a movement that deals in shadows.
There’s a lesson in this not just for the Times, but for us all. Because sometimes even a half-reflection can tell us more about ourselves than we want to know.
My first lesson in the intricacies of balancing reportage about neo-Nazis and crypto-fascists came in the late 1970s, when I was the then-21-year-old editor of a small-town daily in the Idaho Panhandle, about 20 miles north of the just-established rural compound of the Aryan Nations near Hayden Lake. After consultations with my reporters and the publisher, we came to the joint decision to avoid providing the new arrivals with anything other than cursory coverage: Attention, we reckoned, was what they wanted, and it seemed wise not to give it to them.
Yet within a few short years, the region found itself awash in a tide of hate crimes – Jewish businesses vandalized, mixed-race schoolchildren harassed by adults, and a host of other ugliness closely associated with the burning crosses and Klan outfits that were part of the scene outside Hayden. It all culminated in 1984 with the multistate crime-and-terror spree of the neo-Nazi gang The Order, which included the assassination of a radio talk show host in Denver.
By then, of course, the Sandpoint Daily Bee had long disposed of its previous policy regarding coverage of the Aryan Nations and the extremists it attracted to the region. And it remained an important and essential lesson that led me to always take seriously the need to shine a spotlight on their activities, because they always interpret silence as tacit approval.
Richard Faussett’s reportage for the Times (“A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” November 25) clearly was in this spirit, intended to shine a light on the thinking that led a seemingly ordinary American to adopt such a radical belief system as white nationalism. Yet it failed signally to provide as whole and truthful, and thus accurate, a portrait of its subject as reportage like this needs to, in large part because it only looked at the individuals and not the movement they represented.
Reporters experienced in dealing with radical racists know well this secondary pitfall: Giving them a soft-focus kind of exposure, the kind they are likely to hand you, only serves to enhance their toxic influence, both by “normalizing” them and by gliding over the nature of their ideology. If you’re going to report on them, you have to be not just precise but thorough.
The mistake is an easy one to make, an aspect of the spotlight-shining nature of the enterprise, because it is easy at first to dwell too long on the surface of the subject, readily exposed by the light, and too little on the shadows that define its real shape. Context is everything in journalism, and especially when reporting on a subject with potentially dire consequences if mishandled.
So the Times’ piece told us the many ways in which Tony Hovater was an ordinary guy, but it told us very little about the ways in which he was anything but. Just giving us a taste of Hovater’s extremist social-media posts, many of them laden with bizarre conspiracism and overt racism, would have been helpful.
Likewise, any historical context was missing. There was nothing explaining where Hovater’s ideas originated, what the history of the Traditionalist Workers Party was, or how these ideas dated back to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Nor was there really even any more recent context that could have shed more light on the subject, including TWP’s involvement in the ugliness at Charlottesville, in which a neo-Nazi ran over and killed a counter-demonstrator.
Most of all, it missed the essential context a reporter experienced in dealing with the movement would know about radical racists: They operate in a kind of constructed alternative universe of their own, one fueled and ruled by an ever-growing web of conspiracy theories, a belief system in which rules of factuality and evidence are replaced with paranoid speculation, groundless smears, and endless innuendo. I call this epistemological bubble “Alt-America.”
In Alt-America, up is down, right is left, and reality has no visible basis other than the shifting sands of Alex Jones’ pronouncements. In this universe, President Obama is a white-hating racist and secret Muslim, part of a “globalist” (read: Jewish) conspiracy to enslave mankind under a New World Order. In the white-nationalist sector of this universe, “cultural Marxists” and feminists are conspiring to use “political correctness” to prevent white men from achieving their natural greatness.
So when Hovater made vague references to Holocaust-denial theories in his quotes, it was the reporter’s job to explain that to readers. Likewise Hovater’s many other coded references to racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that were woven into many of the things he was quoted as saying went largely unremarked.
However, for all of its flaws, the Times story got one important thing right: It showed the ease with which right-wing extremists fit into mainstream culture, and it showed their humanness, revealing them without horns or self-evident psychopathy. The latter is important, first because denying humanity in others is precisely the neo-Nazi enterprise, and it’s not one an ethical journalist should want to replicate; moreover, exploring this gives readers a complete picture that explains just how it is they can fit in alongside the rest of us. This is how they can number in the hundreds of thousands online and their presence next to us in person can barely register.
This is the reality which most shocks and frightens us, the reason so many of us want to reject the Times’ portrait of young white nationalists’ seeming normalcy: It is not so much that they can resemble so many ordinary white Americans, but rather, that so many ordinary white Americans resemble them. The mirror is looking back at us, too.
For how many years, we need to ask ourselves, have we allowed the longtime white-nationalist agenda – to foment a culture war between liberals and minorities and the rest of America, to incessantly demonize them and cast them as the embodiment of evil itself – to seep into our mainstream culture? How long have we permitted right-wing demagogues, from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Savage to Sean Hannity to Alex Jones, to spew their irrational, fact-free, paranoid conspiracy-mongering freely over our airwaves and into our homes, coaching one group of Americans on how and why they should virulently hate a whole class of their fellow citizens, without anyone capable of standing up to them and calling them out for it?
Why is there in fact no real accountability, no culpability for this toxic hatemongering? Why are we even remotely surprised that it has metastasized into this toxic army of proto-fascists? And why are we shocked that they look and sound like ordinary Americans who watch Fox and tune in to Infowars?
Because in the end, the only real agenda of white nationalism is to destroy this once-great nation, especially the democratic institutions they make no bones about their hostility towards – to bring those institutions to their knees, to drive them into oblivion.
That was missing from the Times’ report, too. But it is the reality that lurked behind every word. And as frightening and unpleasant as it is for Americans to face, it is well past time we did so.
[Be sure to check out David Neiwert's new book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, now available at your local bookstore from Verso Press.