USA Society Focus

Reporters grapple with the 'right' way to cover the far right

putting it in perspective

As news organizations probe the rise in white nationalism, some worry they may unintentionally wind up promoting it.

White nationalist leader Matthew Heimbach (c.) screams at the media in defense of James Alex Fields Jr. outside Fields's bail hearing on suspicion of murder, malicious wounding, and hit-and-run charges ensuing from Fields's arrest after a car hit counter-protesters at the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 14, 2017.
Justin Ide/Reuters
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Jim Goad is not your garden-variety redneck, though he, self-admittedly, exudes “eau de garbage blanc.”

In the early 2000s, the leather-booted writer was attacked three times by anti-racist skinheads in Portland, Ore., for wearing an Iron Cross – a “commonly used hate symbol,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Today, he finds himself in high demand as both a columnist and source for reporters seeking to understand the growth in white supremacy in 21st century America – though Goad does not view himself as a white supremacist.

Now in his 50s, Mr. Goad, author of “The Redneck Manifesto,” has been called the “godfather of the new right.” His oeuvre is plumbing the murky depths of white resentment – and uncovering what he calls in a Monitor interview “the blind, cruel hypocrisy of … forced equality.”

Goad says he doesn’t consider himself part of the self-described “alt-right,” a coalition that espouses white nationalist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic beliefs. He calls himself, simply, a "lone wolf," an independent thinker not beholden to any group.

Since the election of Donald Trump, he is also part of a cadre of American thinkers and activists being pursued by journalists caught flat-footed by the wave of white resentment and emboldened white nationalists that helped put President Trump in the White House. Goad told the Willamette Week this fall that reporters look to him to describe the “etiology of the disease.” (WW’s Goad profile featured a trigger warning for racial slurs.)

“Half of people think I’m a dangerous idiot and the other half think I’m brave enough to say things they are terrified to say in public,” says the Temple University journalism grad in a phone interview with the Monitor on Dec. 12. In a column this year, he wrote, “I’ve never felt the need to say that white people are the best on Earth, but this isn’t what gets me labeled a white supremacist – it’s my refusal to say they’re the worst group on Earth.”

To be sure, Goad’s rat-a-tat-tat wit has been lauded beyond the alt-right, including by self-described liberal comedian Patton Oswalt. But as the country’s tone has grown increasingly angry during Mr. Trump’s first year in power, attacks on multiculturalism – and Goad does pile on – have also increasingly been seen by some Americans as an antidemocratic defense of white supremacy’s newest iteration. They point to an uptick in hate crimes reported to the FBI, an increase in stress and hostility found in schools, and growing reports of street clashes between far-right extremists and left-wing antifascist groups.

When the press tries to understand Goad and white nationalists, does that advertise, no matter unintentionally, for white supremacy? Or is ignoring them a greater sin, confirming all that Goad and others say as true: that the media – and its academic and political fellow-travelers – selectively sketch reality to fit a multicultural political agenda?

“The question [of how to cover the rise of white nationalism in the US] really is … an existential dilemma for journalism,” says Frank LoMonte, the former Atlanta bureau chief for the Morris News Service. “Do you treat certain issues as being settled beyond the point of litigating? Is the full respect, regard, and recognition for the rights of minorities really such a settled proposition in America? It feels like it should be, but we know that there is some segment of the population that is still prepared to litigate that question.”

Journalists' dilemma

To be sure, providing context for the voices of separatism and hate has become even more complicated as American news consumers on both the right and left have become increasingly siloed and militant, says Clay Calvert, author of "Voyeur Nation" and a law professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Some reporters, unable to stomach the viciousness and outright threats on social media, have started shying away from controversial topics. According to one informal survey, 15 percent of reporters say they have stopped pitching stories that may inspire internet backlash. The issue is being debated in newsrooms from south Florida to southern California.

Some are squelching reporting, including a Florida station that won’t use the names of white nationalists when covering their speeches. And some, primarily younger Americans, have gone so far as to question whether the First Amendment needs reevaluating. Last month, a student wrote in the Daily Nexus, the University of California-Santa Barbara student paper: “There should be a fine line where free speech stops being a right and starts being a threat to the very idea of America.”

Against that grain, Vice News won plaudits for embedding a reporter with white supremacists ahead of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va. Correspondent Elle Reeve came away with a blockbuster exposé that presented an unvarnished view of the marchers – and their personal armories – providing a front-row glimpse into ideas that are morphing into actual “erosions in the civil rights protections for huge groups of people in the US,” says Heidi Beirich, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report.

“A lot of journalists are facing this huge dilemma right now around how to cover this resurgent white nationalist movement without normalizing it or giving it a broader audience,” says Sophie Bjork-James, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist who studies white nationalism in the US. “Journalists don’t want to have their own ideology shape how they portray [issues], but most do believe there are values we can agree on in a democracy.”

The problem for that mindset, she adds, is that white nationalist “ideas are spreading a lot more than actual people defining themselves as activists and going to outright protests.” The Program on Extremism at George Washington University found that the numbers of white supremacist followers on social media exploded by 600 percent between 2012 and 2016. “Analysis of this network pointed to significant growth in users identifying with white nationalism broadly, and among users who indicated some form of Nazi sympathy specifically,” the study author wrote.

At the same time, Bjork-James adds: “There is a huge danger of misrepresenting [white supremacists] having more power than they do and more numbers than they do, and then normalizing them, because they are working really hard at using various online spaces to normalize their radical ideas.”

Importance of fact-checking

In that way, some veteran journalists say, it can be worthwhile to look deeper at the pathology of hate – and how it becomes embodied through influential thinkers and journalists. 

“When journalists go down that rat hole, attempting to determine what makes white nationalists tick, they necessarily have to look at the chronology of people’s lives,” says Bill Morlin, a Washington State-based reporter who has for nearly four decades chronicled the crimes of extremists, including white supremacists. “And that can lead you from a look at a pretty normal person to how they get involved in this kind of extremism ….” The problem, he adds, is that “sometimes we [journalists] let people involved in the extremist movement define what it is that they are talking about without fact-checking them.”

For journalists specifically, that makes fraught any deep-dive into the defense of claims of white superiority.

The New York Times faced immense reader backlash to Atlanta bureau chief Richard Fausset’s fall profile of Ohio resident Tony Hovater, a co-founder of the Traditionalist Workers Party, which is loosely based on Nazi ideology. Mr. Fausset wrote: “He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. … He is a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan.”

“Dear New York Times: … Please don’t normalize white supremacy,” rang one of a chorus of complaints.

At the same time, other observers argue that Mr. Fausset’s piece and the reaction to it illustrated what many Americans might not want to hear: that white supremacist views have already been normalized to some extent. “The sensational nature of Hovater's identification with Nazi Germany obscures the ordinariness of his racism,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes.

'More dangerous to ignore them'

In a poll responding to the Charlottesville "Unite The Right" rally in August, the Washington Post found that 1 out of 10 Americans believe that holding neo-Nazi views is OK, a view held by nearly 2 in 10 strong Trump supporters. Former Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism analyst Daryl Johnson has estimated the number of actual white supremacists at “several hundred thousand.” 

Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans believe that political correctness has silenced important discussions that [the] country needs to have, according to an October poll by the libertarian Cato Institute poll.

“It’s true that most people in the United States don’t like these views, they find them unsavory, and they are unsettling to hear,” says Ms. Beirich of the SPLC. “But, sorry, they matter right now.”

Guardian journalist Gary Younge published an interview with National Policy Institute founder Richard Spencer in October, in which Mr. Spencer claimed that American blacks benefited from slavery since their descendants were now better off than the African societies they were kidnapped from, a point which Goad also makes. This claim has been repeatedly debunked by historians, and also ignores disparities in economic, educational, and incarceration levels – as well as evidence of the persistent effects of racism on the health of African-Americans. In a video that went viral, Mr. Spencer also stunningly suggested Mr. Younge couldn’t be British because he is black.

Younge wrote in a post-mortem that his first instinct was to not reward Spencer with the Guardian’s bandwidth. But in the end, he writes, Spencer’s influence, unlike the Ku Klux Klan, felt new – and thus, news.

“It felt as though these far-right ideas had traveled quite rapidly from the margins to the mainstream, and were infecting the US body politic at the highest levels,” Younge writes. “If these people were, as they claimed, providing the intellectual underpinning for the Trump administration, then it seemed to me it is more dangerous to ignore them than engage and hopefully expose them.”

'Politicized in ways that make you squirm'

The self-described offspring of “urban Philly garbage and rural Vermont scum,” Goad is best-known for “Manifesto,” which Simon & Schuster published in 1997. That year, he wrote that the rise of white identity would “get nasty … [a]nd politicized in ways that make you squirm.”

His advocacy for what he has called “white n------” goes back “to being a rebellious Catholic kid: Don’t try to guilt trip me with something I’m not guilty of,” he says. “As a child, I sensed malice in that. [The nuns] weren’t doing it for my own good. They were just mean.”

For his part, Goad expressly says he does not advocate, as Spencer does, for a white ethno-state, though he does note that “I have a dim view of humanity, so ultimately a sort of peaceful secession movement would probably be the best thing for everyone involved."

Yet he also says he’s grappled, sometimes painfully, with the real-world effects of his prose. The suicide deaths of three British neo-Nazis in 1996 were tied to Goad’s publication of a suicide issue in his early ’zine, Answer Me!

One of them, a young woman, called Goad before her death wanting to know if his P.O. box was the same.

“She was a really depressed girl, and the next week reporters are asking me, ‘What do you have to say about the three British kids who killed themselves?’ I’m privately crying about it. If I had known she was suicidal, I would have said, ‘Come on up, we’ve got a couch,’ ” he says. “My point [in the issue] was that people who are suicidal at least have insight about the human condition and shouldn’t kill themselves.”

Goad now lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., the birthplace of the modern-day Ku Klux Klan – a place where, today, 8 out of 10 residents are African-American. A recent satirical MoveOn.org campaign suggested adding the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast to the massive carvings of Confederate icons on Stone Mountain. He is divorced and rooms with Bam-Bam, his pitbull mix. In a meeting last year with this reporter, he grinned as he shared pictures of his grade-school-aged son. He is also a country singer who plays occasional live shows.

To get a sense of the Goad style of discourse, he defends a demeaning column in the libertarian webzine Taki's Magazine from earlier this year where he lists "nachos" as the most important Mexican invention by noting that Wikipedia lists only seven Mexican inventors but 374 British ones. If liberal journalists can cherry-pick facts to sway public opinion, he suggests, so can he. But critics say that kind of data-picking also gives cover to a more insidious claim: that so-called DREAM-ers, people brought to the US as children, are genetically and culturally inferior to whites, which he believes means their presence in the US presages a dumbed-down future.

“Goad’s convoluted ideas about race pose a real danger because his own followers, like so many on the alt-right, will tell you they aren’t racists when their actions would clearly tell you otherwise,” Joshua Frank, editor of the left-wing magazine Counter-Punch, told the Willamette Week in November.

For Goad's part, he says, “I don’t believe people are equal, but it all depends on what you do with that belief. For 25 years I’ve questioned equality and it has never made me want to harm anyone except for people who want to put me in jail for thinking that way.”

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