DI Chat: How Should the Media Cover Nazis?

It’s true. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This weekend, the New York Times published a profile of an American white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer, which was controversial for its tone and approach. It also sparked a discussion about how the media should cover Nazis and the Nazi-adjacent. Five New York writers tried to sort it out.

Ezekiel: Was the Times profile any good?

Ed: Only as a “banality of evil” item; not as a serious look at white-supremacist trends. Garden-variety borderline racists are more relevant. You know: people who are enraged by having to “press 1 for English,” and who think black folks are the ones with privileges. These are not people who typically have issues with Jews or want to bring back Nordic gods.

Jon: I have to give the article the same review Wayne’s World frequently gave movies: “Didn’t see it.” I am bored by all the Nazi coverage and I think there’s too much of it. Therefore I did Nazi the story.

Ed: Also: not enough music.

Eric: If you assume that some Times readers are millennials who are sympathetic to white nationalism — but weren’t sure if there was a place in the movement for people who like Seinfeld and Twin Peaks — then the piece was unacceptably dangerous. It offers little useful information. The Traditional Workers Party is not such a force in American politics that it requires such coverage. So, nothing in there to justify abetting neo-Nazi recruitment.

Jon: The only objectionable part of the story was where the reporter wrote, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party!” That crossed a line.

Eric: If you assume that there aren’t any would-be Nazis reading the Times, then I thought the piece was unremarkable but fine.

Ed: Though getting back to Jon’s point, treating latter-day white-supremacist politics as being mostly about Nazis, which the Times has come close to doing over time, is empirically wrong. While the big complaint is that the Times has been “normalizing” Nazis, I think the bigger risk is “normalizing” non-Nazi racists as relatively benign.

Max: I thought it failed even on the “banality of evil” front. There were a bunch of moments in it that made me do a double take — he talks about mixed-race couples at his wedding, for example, and reading that I was immediately much more interested in what would make a mixed-race couple feel comfortable around or interested in going to a neo-Nazi’s wedding.

Eric: It’s interesting to me that a “vaguely leftist” heavy metal drummer turned to white-nationalist politics after the Trayvon Martin shooting; and that he sees a white ethno-state as a libertarian project; and that his wife’s friends are cool with it because they’re not into politics. It’s an interesting enough character study. I agree though — how do you not interview those mixed race couples? Generally speaking, it would have been good to get the voice of someone threatened by this guy’s ideas in there. Soliciting some comment from his nonwhite “friends” seems like a no-brainer.

Jon: Actually, Ed’s Mel Brooks reference (which I was echoing) gets to my serious point, which is, there’s a reason why I’m so flip about this. Mel Brooks had to defend using Nazis as a subject of humor, and he explained that it’s disarming. I agree. These people are pathetic, and I think the common response on the left of elevating them and treating them as a serious threat is a mistake. These clowns haven’t earned the right to make me feel afraid of them.

Ed: People turning to weird politics over time is always interesting, but pretty common. Hell, I remember seeing Ted Nugent perform back when he was a flower-power hippie. And the actual Nazis had a lot of recruits who had been “vaguely leftist” — or not so vaguely communist.

Ezekiel: By the author’s own admission, the profile didn’t answer the questions that it set out to answer in the first place.

I think it’s bad to write an article where you set out to answer the question “how did this guy become a Nazi” and come up with the answer “I don’t know, he’s kind of a normal guy.”

Ed: Exactly.

Ezekiel: Maybe we should turn to the broader question of how to cover  Nazis, the KKK, white supremacists, etc.

Jon: Much less.

Ed: When it comes to measuring the political influence of people who embrace fringe ideologies, I generally ask: “Could this person be elected dogcatcher?” If not, then I’d be concerned about over-coverage. David Duke got elected to the state legislature, and then ran a highly credible race for governor. You have to cover that. And again: I’m more interested in garden-variety racists attracted to Trump than people with some formal ideology or elaborate racial theories or lightning-bolt armbands.

Ezekiel: I just don’t think there are that many people who are going to openly sign on to the beliefs that make Nazis distinctive. There are a lot more people who are going to sign on to some version of white nationalism when framed in a particular way. The increase in the number of people openly claiming to be Nazis is just a sign of that underlying mass increasing. And that’s what I’m interested in, if we’re going to spend time on this.

Eric: One more point on the piece: I don’t think Nazis are a major threat. But to me, the piece almost works as an (unintentional) satire of the way that racism is normalized in white, American culture. Plenty of people don’t dwell on the racist political beliefs of their friends and family, and write it off as a minor eccentricity. But when those political beliefs go unchallenged, there are real consequences — Trump’s election, for example. Hovater, in his extremity, makes the irresponsibility of this behavior easier to see.

Ed: Getting back to David Duke: What finally killed off his career was a photo of him festooned in swastikas.

Eric: I agree that Nazis get too much attention in media. That said: There is a huge discrepancy right now between the percentage of terrorist attacks white-nationalist(ish) extremists commit in the United States, and how much counterterrorism funding is devoted to combating them. We pay too much attention to Nazis … but, also, to ISIS. Arguably.

Jon: I agree with that.

Max: I think there are a lot of pretty basic editorial guidelines that could help a publication ensure rigorous and sharp coverage of white nationalists — Ed’s dogcatcher rule of thumb is a good one. But I think what tends to get overlooked is the larger dynamic by which white nationalists manage to use the media to increase both their perceived power and their actual power. “Attention” is increasingly connected to a person or group’s ability to influence politics, and for the NYT to cast its attention-directing gaze on a guy who is ultimately a fairly minor figure is a mistake. Not because the article will directly cause people to join this dipshit’s cause but because it gives him an appearance of importance and influence that he (like his other self-created alt-right media-darling peers) can use to direct “the conversation” or “the discourse” or whatever we call it.

Jon: Nazis and terrorists are both using the same technique, which relies heavily, even entirely, on manipulating the media as a device to create irrational fear in their targets and to promote recruitment.

Ed: So to what extent do others think the Nazis (and quasi-Nazis) and the antifa folk are engaged in a self-conscious mutual effort to promote each other?

Jon: I also agree that Nazis and antifa are in a mutually beneficial cycle of threat inflation.

Max: I mean, to Ed’s point, not to flog a dead horse, but candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America won, what, a dozen local elections at around the dogcatcher-and-above level back in November? And the DSA boasts, I think, 60 times as many members as the Traditionalist Workers Party (or whatever it’s called)? And I don’t think they’ve gotten any coverage in the Times at all outside the op-ed page.

Jon: There are dozens of us … DOZENS. Dozens!

Max: lol.

Eric: Yeah, I definitely see the harms inherent to giving this dude exposure.

Max: I mean, I’m totally open to the argument that DSA shouldn’t get NYT coverage! But it’s hard for me to see the case for neo-Nazi grocery shopper and not for actually-elected [in stage whisper] socialists.

Jon: I agree, it’s a bigger story.

Eric: I’m also not sure that the piece won’t lead people to join the dipshit’s cause either, just to be clear. Was just saying, if one assumed no negative practical effects, I didn’t regret the time I spent reading it.

Ed: Let’s admit that some white supremacists have a flair for stylistic touches that practically compel some coverage. Anyone even vaguely aware of the history of torch-light processions — from the Nazis to the KKK —had to be struck by those tiki torches in Charlottesville.

Ezekiel: The point of the affectations is to get people to cover them. Or at least, that’s part of the point.

Ed: Yes, and to convince the initiates that they are part of a grand tradition of racism.

Eric: I guess the argument would be that the president has proven reluctant to condemn the neo-Nazi grocery shopper.

Jon: There were some great memes using this photo:

Jon: To me that’s the way to handle these losers.

Max: I don’t know. Maybe I spend too much time in the fever swamps but I’m consistently struck by how little shame these guys have, and how hard it is for them to feel embarrassed. They’re so thrilled to be covered at all that getting made fun of doesn’t bother them at all.

Ed: Getting back to the main point, I really do think the neo-Nazis are a poor choice for racist poster people in the Trump era. It’s way too easy for someone like Bannon to very convincingly — even truthfully — point to a lack of anti-Semitic feeling to distinguish themselves. I would sharply distinguish neo-Nazis from neo-Confederates, by the way. Unlike the former, the latter is an indigenous movement with millions of supporters.

Eric: Yeah. These are the racists that really matter.

Jon: That was a great story.

Max: But I can’t really think of a way to cover them that doesn’t help them accrue some kind of attentional power, beyond investigative and enterprise reporting that reveals their secrets. And I’d never tell someone NOT to make fun of Nazis.

Ed: On the question of whether, rather than how much, to cover loathsome people: it’s sort of like how I respond to people who want to suppress polls because they’re often wrong. The answer to bad information is better information.

Eric: I think assigning such stories to beat reporters who have the knowledge necessary to contextualize these movements and figures seems sound.

Ezekiel: I guess my rubric is that to focus on what they want and how they plan to get it, is more useful than who they are. And my rubric for whether a story is “successful” is that if you can imagine the Nazi proudly sending it to his friends, you screwed up somewhere.

DI Politics Chat: How Should the Media Cover Nazis?