Day 5: Broadsheet Distortions

Discussing press coverage of the “Alt Right.” (Dorian Jedrasiewicz/FASPE)

By Rebekah F. Ward

How do Nazis marching families of Jewish prisoners to the gas chambers at Auschwitz II affect you? How about a mob of 1870s-era Klansmen lynching African-American men in South Carolina? What if these events had happened yesterday and you could see one or the other on the front page of your local daily?

Both images represent truth. But decisions about which, and when, and how many of these images to publish can have far-reaching consequences.

One of the axiomatic premises of journalism is that people need a steady diet of facts that they can trust. This is considered especially true in a democracy, and in particular when those facts reveal things that most citizens presumably oppose: corruption, embezzlement, racism, genocide.  

Our vehicle for those facts is story. Each story draws attention, but it also becomes part of a larger composite image. It builds in its readers, listeners, and viewers a notion of what is going on, what needs to be known. And if certain realities are not considered newsworthy, they might not make it into that composite and into the perceiver’s understanding of the world.

Sitting around a U.N.-style oak table at Collegium Maius, the oldest building of Poland’s oldest university, our group tried to figure out what the apparent normalcy, or at least regular resurgence, of white nationalism means in America. And how the hell we are supposed to cover it.

We had just come from a session that reviewed how the Polish nation-building narrative shaped the way its citizens perceived the Nazis and World War II. Poland was a victim of Nazi invasion, of devastation during World War II; their soldiers were not the ones marching Polish Jews to death camps, nor were their intellectuals strategizing extermination. And yet anti-Semitism was alive and well in Poland before Nazi occupation. The victimhood of Poland during that era does not preclude a preexisting racist ideology, nor the complicity of individuals.

Something similar might be said of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States—they are painted as exceptionally hateful, but were they ever such an exception?

Scholars have attested for years that the mainstream press took a valiant stance against the KKK during its resurgence in the early twentieth century. But Felix Harcourt’s recent history, “Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s,” questions that narrative, pointing to the many ways in which the press failed: it sensationalized, it overrepresented the movement, it often struck “balance” by omitting strong language or indictments. The publicity the national press offered may have been a significant contributor to the clan’s successful resurgence.

When the New York Times published a widely-criticized feature on a recently-married white nationalist from Ohio, it was accused of “normalizing” the so-called Alt-Right. The article’s original title speaks for itself: In America’s Heartland, the Voice of Hate Next Door reads as an ahistorical mishmash of trips to Applebees and denial of the Holocaust. One of the most frequent internet-chatter defenses of the work—echoed, to some degree, in the responses of the author and paper’s national editor—was that this subject was entirely appropriate, and appropriately covered, because it had become somewhat “normal” in contemporary America.

But the profile was missing a news hook. A character with star status. A disaster, a remarkable achievement, the answer to a question or a nod to history. Anything that normally guides our news sense. In the absence of these elements, the profile of Tony Horvater’s typical-sounding life did a complicated thing: it elevated his “type” to the level of national news.

Surely the “Alt-Right” is newsworthy now. Surely articles that dig into its history and motivations, such as Luke O’Brien’s The Making of an American Nazi, help to build the foundation of facts that let us make informed decisions. But is Mr. Horvater “news”?

I would argue that he could only be seen as newsworthy in and of himself if we accept the narrative that America is about equality, about justice, about racial diversity. Those may be the aspirational goals of our laws and precedents, but they are not our predominant culture, nor our history.  

I would also argue that the article, though worthy of the criticism it received, did little to “normalize” Horvater as a person: he is just as normal and just as abnormal as he was before the piece was published. But the press narrative as a whole, its coverage of the “Alt-Right” and its many Tony Horvaters, does matter. It does build a set of knowledge that consumers draw from to paint their picture of how large, how powerful, how scary, how welcoming this movement is.

But, as was the case with press coverage of the KKK in the 1920s, will history evaluate us differently than our contemporaries do?


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