A few weekends ago, I got into a series of arguments with a white man I didn’t know at a housewarming party for someone else I didn’t really know. Somewhere between our civil shouting matches about #BlackLivesMatter, American policing, and “not seeing color” (an idea I find absurd and counterproductive), he took the time to boast of his political neutrality. He told me that he doesn’t fit into the right-left dichotomy, and how that translates into his actions, from the way he votes to how he gets his news. “You can’t trust the news anymore,” he said, declaring that the days of “objective reporting” are dead. I argued that those days never really existed, that all journalism lies on some spectrum of advocacy.
Recently, publications have flirted with a type of journalism that seems to propose that profiles of white supremacists, white nativists, and others who decry demographic shifts in America are a form of objectivity—a means of casting a light on the foulest recesses of society, in an attempt to say “this is bad, look at how bad this is.” But more often than not, such attempts lack the care and nuance that the subject demands.
While activists are no-platforming extremists—diminishing their voices on social media and elsewhere via protest, boycott, or policy change—certain media outlets are offering a safe space to hear out white supremacy under the guise of simply telling stories from the American heartland. The result: Profiles featuring racists who profess their love for mainstream cultural touchstones like Seinfeld and Twin Peaks as if to say, “Nazi sympathizers: They’re just like us!”; publishers of said profiles releasing statements defending their editorial strategy after the waves of criticism; ham-handed interviews with white nationalists that are more or less a free PR opportunity for their toxic views. Rinse, repeat.
The debate over how to cover burgeoning white supremacist movements isn’t new, it’s been fleshed out and decked out repeatedly since the 2016 election. But certain news organizations seem to bend over backward to justify why individual white racists are important enough to cover and, ostensibly, become household names. It’s exactly what National Public Radio did last week.
On August 10, NPR’s Noel King spoke with Jason Kessler, the organizer behind this weekend’s Unite the Right rally in Washington, DC. The white nationalist rally comes a year Kessler’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left 32-year-old Heather Hayer dead after a neo-Nazi attending the march plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., was later charged with second-degree murder.
King warned listeners that the six-minute, 51-second segment contained racist language. To her credit King didn’t let Kessler completely bulldoze his way through the interview; she tried to challenge him and certainly triggered his most petulant moments. But what little verbal sparring they did failed to make up for King asking Kessler, “Do you think that white people are smarter than black people?”
Kessler launched into a white racist’s favorite pastime: discussing IQ results, which are historically misappropriated to justify racial animus. It’s a favorite because it is meant to give off the illusion of scientific impartiality, claiming, as Kessler did, that Ashkenazi Jews and Asians technically score higher on IQ tests than white Christians, while still asserting that Latinxs and blacks are genetically relegated to the bottom rung. It’s a transparent cover for accusations of racism: How, white supremacists argue, can they truly believe in white supremacy when they admit that white people aren’t the most intelligent? It’s a boring game of race realism, and it’s a game that King wasn’t quite ready to debunk when Kessler brought it to the table.
It’s not enough that King seemed unprepared to refute the talking points of a racist. It’s frankly unthinkable to have a sit-down interview with a man whose entire brand is racist white nativism and yet be caught without at least a few quick stats debunking IQ, crime rates, and welfare. More importantly, it also feels pointless to debate the humanity of non-white people with a professional racist at all, let alone on a national platform, under the guise of journalistic objectivity. And if that’s what these (often white) journalists have to do to conduct a gutsy interview with a white supremacist, perhaps it’s not worth it. It feels inadequate when handled by white journalists, and at times pitiful in the hands of non-white journalists.
Shows like Viceland’s Hate Thy Neighbor, CNN’s United Shades of America, and documentaries like White Right: Meeting the Enemy are all are examples of non-white people confronting and engaging with racists. The fact that the aforementioned have non-white people at the helm feels more inherently—and necessarily—combative than when similar interviews are conducted by well-meaning white journalists. There’s still an element of cringe. How can there not be, when watching journalists like Deeyah Khan, the Muslim filmmaker behind White Right, asking a Neo-Nazi if he hates her? I find these shows more effective than when white journalists attempt to navigate the same murky waters in one-off interviews, which are often conducted with a sort of wide-eyed, saccharine shock. These shows don’t reek of plausible deniability. Even still, getting non-white people to do this work isn’t without controversy (not everything can be a captivating deep dive like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Pulitzer-winning profile of Dylann Roof): W. Kamau Bell was criticized in 2017 for giving a platform to Richard Spencer on United Shades of America. In response, Bell penned an op-ed defending the program, writing, “We all need to make sure that we fully understand our country.”
Sure, there’s something to be said about knowing thy enemy. This is always the rationale. For those who somehow need a reminder that racism is buried deep in the foundations of this country, its institutions, and its people, perhaps listening to an interview with a white nationalist is valuable. But these ventures into moral depravity often aren’t worth it, especially if they’re not done with the critical care they deserve. Little is gained from a short interview with the organizer of a right-wing event and not every white supremacist with a modest following deserves a feature in the Guardian. Maybe Richard Spencer and his adjacent trolls don’t deserve sleek photo shoots in the New York Times or Mother Jones. Maybe a dark, gritty profile of a Nazi sympathizer isn’t worth publishing if even one person finds a modicum of “truth” in their inadequately challenged bile.