In the age of social media—when cowardly trolls and bigoted bots tend to hurl insults from the safety of anonymous online profiles—the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and racist demonstrators in Charlottesville did not bother to hide their identities.
They crossed the University of Virginia campus to demand attention with their heads held high, a horde of men whose faces were lit by the torches they carried—a scene intended to evoke and glorify the cruelties of fire-wielding lynch mobs and cross-burners of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet many of these marchers might bristle at being called Klansmen, per se, counting themselves among some differently-named herd of hateful racists. In recent years, American racists have taken pains to come up with new terminology to self-identify with—such as the so-called “alt-right,” a phrase credited to avowed racist Richard Spencer, who famously celebrated Trump’s victory with Nazi salutes.
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The media should have had the same reaction to “alt-right” as we did to Kellyanne Conway’s insistence on “alternative facts”—utter disbelief and amusement at the idea that we couldn’t see a lie for a lie.
But the term didn’t die on the fringes of society, instead finding its way into our mainstream. In news coverage, the phrase “alt-right” shows up, often used as shorthand in headlines or a catch-all term for the many types of hate groups that traveled to Charlottesville from different parts of the country. The weekend’s events were called “Unite the Right” because while these groups share many basic tenets, America’s hatemongers are splintered into more than 900 groups now.
Trump — again — fails to condemn alt-righthttps://t.co/hKKczrvB9b
— Karen (@kyungkarenmend1) August 14, 2017
The alt-right stands at a crossroads, by @intelwire: https://t.co/kgRxgywFxT pic.twitter.com/g148gcLTu0
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) August 14, 2017
A list of all the ways Trump and his advisers have supported the white supremacist alt-right: https://t.co/eYT3WvHs3j pic.twitter.com/HSKPZPkX35
— Slate (@Slate) August 14, 2017
How did such a basic bigot as Spencer—dubbed a “kind of professional racist in khakis” by advocates—redefine overt racism and white supremacy as if they were new? Until this weekend, many Americans and media makers dismissed them as a small group in a dark corner of the internet. But with three dead and more than a dozen others wounded in Charlottesville, white supremacists have unapologetically brought their beliefs and desired violence into the light—we all see it more clearly now. It’s time for media to reframe coverage to clearly relate this fresh outburst of hatred to America’s long history of racial violence.
In the Associated Press’ Stylebook, the term “alt-right” is defined as “a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists“—which, in itself, paints the term as a trendy thing to call an age-old American problem. Somehow, they were allowed to rework their public personas with a term that makes them sound a little edgy, like an alt-weekly or alt-rock.
In the already outdated 2017 edition, the AP style guide offers a warning to avoid using alt-right without defining it, or using a broad brush “because it is not well-known.” It’s time for AP—and newsrooms coast to coast—to stop using such a vague term.
Notably, the AP adds: “the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.” What an odd suspicion to note, all while allowing the phrase to be used. Journalists should ask: Does our continued use of the phrase “alt-right” amount to allowing ourselves to be spun by bigots? Can’t we just call a racist a racist?
I’ve thumbed the Stylebook for many years, and I’ve never seen a phrase described quite like this, or a group so nascent as to be “not well-known” and yet allowed to define itself in a manner that distances itself from typical bigots.
One initial reason for the distinction, that most so-called alt-right groups operate primarily online and through memes, no longer exists. The alt-right is on the streets and hiding in plain sight with a new nickname.
Pundits, please stop dignifying racists, fascists & white supremacists by calling them what they want to be called — "alt-right."
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) August 13, 2017
Please stop calling them alt-right. That's their euphemism. If they chant "blood and soil" they're neo-nazis and/or white supremacists. https://t.co/q072ip8AaD
— Joseph Brown (@Joseph_M_Brown) August 12, 2017
I really wish y'all would stop calling them Nazis and alt-right, and call them white supremacists. Hell, call them Confederates.
— Cocky McSwagsalot (@MoreAndAgain) August 12, 2017
As journalists, is it better to be able to properly define what specific type of bigotry our interview subjects support? In theory, yes. But we must put truth ahead of rebranding of the same old hatreds. We know spin when we see it. We already had words for white men who believed their rights were more important than anyone else’s. We have to be brave enough to use them.
The rebranding of white supremacy knows no bounds. Consider this statement from one of the white supremacists whose picture was circulated on social media this weekend: “I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo,” Peter Cvjetanovic, 20, told a local news station in his home state of Nevada.
In said photo, Cvjetanovic is illuminated by torchlight, wearing a white nationalist symbol on his shirt, and he is visibly giving full-throated support during a march where Nazi slogans and white supremacist chants were being hollered by hordes of white men.
Like the others, he didn’t wear a Klansman’s hood or hide his identity in any way.
Peter Cvjetanovic tells KTVN "I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo." Kid, you're the Hazel Bryan of 2017. https://t.co/v2QYtMcwpt pic.twitter.com/0g2Wic4a7u
— Yes, You're Racist (@YesYoureRacist) August 13, 2017
Even in a clear image of an angry racist, the subject implores viewers to ignore undeniable proof. Despite his attempt to spin, every thinking adult knows what it means to take up torches to march through the South in service of white power.
After watching the chaotic violence this weekend, it’s clear: It doesn’t matter if perpetrators call themselves neo-Nazi, or white separatist, or European “Identitarian” (as the symbol on Cvjetanovic’s shirt indicates he is). It matters that we call racism and white supremacy by the terms best understood by our readers and our history. These groups may take up different names and pretend that they are new, novel, or special—but they all unapologetically stoke racial violence and promote white supremacy.
Reminder to journalists: white nationalism is bad.
Trying to pull "both sides" on this subject IS an editorial stance—and not a good one.
— Jack Jenkins (@jackmjenkins) August 12, 2017
Journalists can’t afford to assign blame equally or pretend a bigot’s motive is anything short of horror.
ICYMI: “If you’re telling me his secrets, you’re probably telling him mine. Now I know never to trust you.”
The bigoted displays and casualties witnessed this weekend in Charlottesville should sound the alarm in newsrooms across the country. The caution that often guides coverage choices dealing with hate groups is that news organizations cannot ignore violence or mayhem, but if no injury or damage is recorded the tendency is to ignore the actions of white terrorists. This is a dangerous backseat to take. As NPR’s David Folkenflik said this week on Reliable Sources, it’s important to frame coverage carefully so as not to overblow political influence. “I think there’s an obligation to cover this but—it’s not a binary choice, folks. We have to make subtle distinctions and smart choices in the way we do this,” Folkenflik said.
About to join CNN's @ReliableSources to talk about #Charolettesville coverage and then legal troubles at Fox News & other news orgs
— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) August 13, 2017
Journalists cannot ignore that the larger picture is growing very grim. We may be telling the story of the modern demise of American tolerance. Violence has visited America repeatedly in the age of Trump, and unlike any of his predecessors, he is not interested in acting like a healer.
In the wake of blatantly racist violence, the American president initially blamed “many sides.”
The president of the United States has just failed to condemn white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideology.
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) August 12, 2017
“Many sides” didn’t do this. pic.twitter.com/4zJFyxzb1J
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) August 12, 2017
Reporter asks Trump if he wants support of white nationalist, Trump walked off without answering.
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) August 12, 2017
At a certain point, we must all pause to ask: How is it that the only time our mouthy, straight-shooting, politically incorrect president seems to bite his tongue is when he is called upon to denounce white supremacists?
Does it have much to do with the fact that he lines the senior ranks of his administration with outspoken white supremacists, including Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart? And why is the administration so interested in curbing civil rights investigations and stopping funding for counter-white nationalism efforts?
These questions should trouble every American, and therefore be on the tip of the tongue of every journalist.
Until we get real answers, it’s time to stop calling the president’s favored political zealots by their favored self-identifying term. Journalists can’t allow agents of hatred to set how they are defined. Their rebrand is little more than a cover-up for white supremacists to continue to commit foul acts of disrespect, intimidation, and violence.
ICYMI: How the ‘alt-right’ checkmated the mediaShaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.