“Polite,” “low key,” with Midwestern manners that “would please anyone’s mother,”…and also, a Nazi. The New York Times’s profile of 29-year-old Ohio resident Tony Hovater sparked outrage from the moment it was published over the weekend. Critics charged that it was a soft-focus puff piece of a man with despicable, dangerous views, while some defended it for exposing the banality of evil in American life.
Recognizing the backlash, the piece’s author, Richard Fausset, published a first-person account of his struggle to wrestle answers from his interviews with Hovater. Admitting that he was unable to satisfactorily discover what made Hovater embrace such noxious beliefs, Fausset writes, “I beat myself up about all of this for a while, until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect. What I had were quotidian details, though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to.”
Those details—from Hovater’s sautéing of “minced garlic with chili flakes” to his Seinfeld fandom—humanize a man who marched with white supremacists in Charlottesville and believes that America would be better off as an ethno-nationalist state. The piece is heavy on banality, but fails to capture the evil that Hovater doesn’t even try to conceal.
The Times’s national editor, Marc Lacey, apologized for “the degree to which the piece offended so many readers,” but defended the decision to pursue the story. “What we think is indisputable,” he writes in an editor’s note now linked at the top of the piece, “is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them.”
That impulse—to expose the degree to which repulsive ideologies exist among our neighbors—is a fine one. As Mother Jones’s Shane Bauer tweeted in defense of the piece, “Regular white people become Nazis and we need to understand how. They are a product of our deeply racist society, of which we are all a part. Monsters are not a product of anything. We can distance ourselves from monsters.” As Fausett himself admits, however, the piece never manages to explain how Hovater came to hold the beliefs he now espouses.
Judging a piece by the reaction of its subject isn’t always the best barometer of the story’s success, but when an avowed Nazi sympathizer and his ideological brethren are celebrating, as BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel reports Hovater and others were after the Times article posted, it’s a sign you’ve missed the mark. Sometimes, if you’re left with “a hole at the heart” of a story, better not to run it at all.
Below, more on the reaction to the Times’s piece.
- The role of the internet: BuzzFeed’s Warzel argues that Fausset’s story missed one vital piece in addressing Hovater’s radicalization. “The Times’ profile falls short in that it largely fails to adequately address a crucial element in the rise of the far right: the internet,” Warzel writes.
- The need for a white supremacy beat: After Charlottesville, Christiana Mbakwe argued for CJR that newsrooms should cover white supremacy in the same way they approach foreign terrorist groups like ISIS.
- How to write about extremists: In the wake of Fausset’s piece, some pointed to recent stories like Luke O’Brien’s profile of Andrew Anglin for The Atlantic and ProPublica’s coverage of far-right groups who marched in Charlottesville as examples of how to report with proper context.
- Newsroom context: The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah tweets: “If you are wondering how NYT thought it was okay to give prominent space to Nazi ideology, [Howard French]’s brilliant essay is worth a re-read: >>> The enduring whiteness of the American media.”
Other notable stories
- After a couple of failed attempts over the past few years, Meredith Corporation finally reached a deal to buy Time Inc. Reuters was the first to break the news of the $1.84 billion purchase involving $650 million in backing from the Koch brothers, though the conservative billionaires will have no official role in influencing Meredith’s editorial or managerial operations. Not all journalists are convinced that the Kochs will maintain a hands-off approach.
- The New York Times’s Murray Carpenter profiles Reade Brower, the unassuming media mogul of Maine.
- For Politico, former George W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer argues that the mainstream media bears some of the blame for the electability of Roy Moore.
- Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch talks with several women reporters about the sexual harassment they face while covering their beats.
- Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post column examines an upcoming Supreme Court case that will determine whether law enforcement should be able to access cell phone data without a warrant, a practice that “could be a nightmare for journalists who are trying to protect their sources.”