White-supremacy threat demands its own beat reporters

White supremacists chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

America’s most dangerous terrorists aren’t always imported or foreign; many are homegrown. But that’s a reality not yet reflected in the coverage priorities of mainstream news outlets. The ugly events in Charlottesville should raise a question for US newsrooms: Why don’t we cover white supremacy the way we cover ISIS?

White supremacy and the right-wing extremist groups it breeds are a national security issue and a threat to millions of Americans, a threat responsible for more attacks on US soil than ISIS. This isn’t conjecture—a database of domestic terror incidents by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting showed that between 2008 and 2016, far-right attacks outnumbered Islamic terrorism by almost 2 to 1 in the United States. They also were deadlier.

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In May, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued an intelligence bulletin entitled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence.” In March, driven by a hatred of black men, James Harris Jackson traveled to New York and killed Timothy Caughman. In June 2015, a young man named Dylann Roof walked into a church in Charleston and murdered parishioners during a prayer meeting. The connective tissue that binds these seemingly disparate crimes is white supremacy. The topic is important enough to merit dedicated beat reporting, with the level of rigor and scrutiny that entails.

The topic is important enough to merit dedicated beat reporting, with the level of rigor and scrutiny that entails.

There are many examples of what this might look like. Rukmini Callimachi’s work on Islamic extremism for The New York Times could serve as a blueprint for how the white-supremacist beat should be approached.  Although Jamelle Bouie’s analysis for Slate isn’t focused solely on white supremacy, he does a wonderful job weaving in examples of how the ideology shapes our political landscape. A number of other journalists are moving the conversation in the right direction, including Tanzina Vega at CNN, and Vann Newkirk II at The Atlantic and of late reporters at Vocativ, which has published stories that inspire confidence. Sadly, most progressive media outlets have a  disappointing track record of covering white supremacy. One of the best authorities on right-wing extremism in terms of thorough and consistent reporting is the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It will not be difficult to find stories on this beat. A June 2017 report by the Anti-Defamation League found that more than half of active Ku Klux Klan groups were formed in the last three years, and instability within the groups meant most were short-lived. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed there are 917 active hate groups in the United States. Trump won the white millennial vote, and we now know cultural anxiety played a significant role in Trump’s rise. These facts, paired with the rise of neo-Nazism among white millennials, all require closer examination.

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The beat should be be a priority for newsrooms located in ostensibly progressive areas like cities, as well as rural areas. White nationalists and the influence of white supremacy are everywhere.

In the immediate aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, the hashtag #ThisIsNotUs began trending on Twitter. The most optimistic reading is that many believe violent racism isn’t and shouldn’t be the American way. A more somber reading might suggest that many Americans are either grossly misinformed or in denial about America’s racial history. People of color were not shocked by Charlottesville. There was a sense of exhaustion, resignation, sadness, anger, and dread. There was an awareness that the Trump administration had helped create the conditions for white supremacists to unveil themselves with pride. They were always among us; now they have been emboldened.

If more newsrooms covered white supremacy with the intensity it deserves, fewer white people might have been surprised by the events in Charlottesville. The response instead could have been, “This is us, and all the signs have been there.” Why this hasn’t happened yet is in part a symptom of the issues journalist Howard French describes in his essay “The enduring whiteness of the American media.” The media is preoccupied with race only when turmoil arises, such as in Ferguson and Baltimore, he argues, but over time race gets pushed down a newsroom’s list of priorities.

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Trump so dominates the news that many newsworthy events are pushed to the periphery or aren’t covered at all. However, it’s worth noting that even in the age of Trump, many news organizations have still managed deep coverage of  ISIS, among them The New Yorker, BuzzFeed News, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

By making the white supremacy beat a priority, newsrooms will cultivate reporters who grow in expertise, can avoid using PR-inspired descriptions such as “alt-right,” and produce stories less superficial than some of the white nationalist coverage we’ve seen since the election. A Mother Jones profile of white nationalist Richard Spencer, for instance, described him as “an articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a ‘fashy’ (as in fascism) haircut.” A tweet accompanying the story described Spencer as the “dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave.” This type of feeble coverage won’t do. A piece on the challenges of covering the radical right by Hatewatch critiques an LA Times story, noting that mistakes can been avoided by focusing on specificity, accuracy, and placing white supremacists in historical context.

 

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It is possible to cover the white supremacist movement thoroughly and powerfully. “The white flight of Derek Black,” a story about how the founder of neo-Nazi website Stormfront’s son came to leave the white-supremacist movement, shows in a nuanced way what occurs when a person who has been indoctrinated changes their mind. The recent Vice News Charlottesville episode, in which correspondent Elle Reeve embedded with neo-Nazis, is a brave and incisive piece of journalism that lays out the story from a vantage point that would otherwise have gone unseen.

With a president who equivocates about white supremacy and a Justice Department that’s at best apathetic to the needs of minority groups, we need newsrooms to tackle this domestic threat. It would naïve to believe there aren’t more people like Dylan Roof or James Alex Fields, Jr. out there. This is a chance to dig deeper, to examine how and why young men and women are being radicalized and the techniques used to radicalize them. Those who lead newsrooms, who assign and pitch stories, must cover white supremacy with the seriousness, nuance, depth, and urgency it requires, and that demands beat reporters from diverse backgrounds.

It won’t be long before the reporters who have descended on Charlottesville leave, and the public shifts its attention to another story. There is a significant risk newsrooms will treat Charlottesville the way they treated the church murders in Charleston—like an aberration rather than a symptom of an ideology knitted into the fabric of America. This does not have to be the case. If you’re willing to report on people being radicalized abroad or by foreign influencers, you can also devote resources to those being radicalized at home.

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Christiana Mbakwe is a journalist, writer, and storyteller who writes about subcultures, hidden worlds, and people who are overlooked. She is a researcher for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.