Last November, the New York Times wrote a profile on white nationalist, Tony Hovater, in the hopes of demonstrating he was just a normal, polite, next-door neighbor who also happened to be a bigot and Nazi sympathizer.
In doing so, the New York Times’ coverage unintentionally normalized white supremacy. The attempt to show that racism is alive, well and omnipresent throughout suburban America, while understandable, was being misguided and unnecessary.
The profile examined the mind of Hovater, one of the white nationalists who marched in August 2017 in the rally against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. This was the same rally ending with the death of Heather Heyer, in which a man drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters.
The coverage was intended to highlight white nationalists as everyday people, but ended up giving them a bigger platform.
The New York Times’ writer and editors were naive to believe the profile wouldn’t elicit any emotional harm to those targeted by hate crimes and racism. The writer and editors failed to take into account people of color and other minorities who share painful pasts with different forms of white supremacy, whether it’s Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany or today’s Traditional Workers Party.
However, despite trying to cover a new angle on white supremacy and its modern form, the New York Times was met with predictable backlash.
Instead of focusing on the perpetrators of hate, covering the targeted individuals would have served readers better by exhibiting the effects of hate and white supremacy.
After negative feedback on the article, Marc Lacey, the New York Times national editor, issued a response to the readers and said the intent of the story was to inform people about the levels of hate and extremism in America, and how both have become a normalized part of people’s lives.
It is the media’s duty to inform people about what is newsworthy — locally, nationally and internationally — but telling a story to better understand a person of hate doesn’t justify promoting their cause, regardless of intention.
Doing this damages the media’s integrity and puts into question its ability to deliver quality and unbiased news. Coverage on white supremacy causes divisiveness and vitriol toward the media, so the coverage must be sensitive to all it affects, in this case, those targeted by racism and hate crimes.
Covering white supremacists and understanding their background and history does nothing to solve the problem or advance equality for those who have long been at a disadvantage simply because of their race. Instead, it insinuates that hate deserves a voice.
The writer, Richard Fausset, said he could not understand why Hovater, who had a considerably normal upbringing, became a white supremacist. Fausset reached out to Hovater again after filing an early version of the profile because Fausset and his editors felt they failed to sufficiently address the reason why he became a white nationalist.
The New York Times may have interviewed Heyer’s mother and addressed her daughter’s memory, but there was still a need for more stories surrounding those who were harmed in Charlottesville, and others who have been hurt by white supremacist ideologies.
News organizations need to learn from this and understand that regardless of their audience, giving a hateful faction the confidence and platform needed to deliver its message to the masses must never be tolerated.
By writing stories like these, the media is unwittingly rewarding racism. Profiles on white nationalists have no place in news coverage and the next time a news organization wants to write a story on white supremacy, let’s hope it fully understands the impact of who and what it chooses to cover.