On August 12, 2017, a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Unite the Right” brought white nationalism to the center of American news. Ahead of the next demonstration, to be held this weekend in Washington DC, I spoke with a scholar of media manipulation and a journalist who reports on right-wing extremism about whether press coverage of this movement exposes important truths or merely disseminates harmful messages.
The opinions below are from our conversations, and edited for length and clarity.
Oxygen feeds the fire
From an interview with Whitney Phillips
Light disinfects, but light also illuminates. It does both things simultaneously in ways that are very unpredictable. I think information is good, and to participate actively in your democracy, you need to know what’s happening. But you relinquish some control of what is going to happen to the information you put out there. And for that reason you need to be a little bit wary of who you’re shining the light for, and what you end up illuminating, for which groups of people.
I do think if you happen to be one of the bodies under threat from white supremacy, this stops being an abstract conversation and becomes more about, “You are actively handing these people weapons against me.” This is about what bodies are impacted, and it tends to be the people whose bodies are not impacted who are most likely to approach it as a clinical abstract conversation.
As I set out to understand better how journalists are covering white supremacists and white nationalists, I was curious about how they covered the Klan in the seventies. I found that, we didn’t just not cover it, we actively chose not to. Remember this was not that long after World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the impact of anti-Semitism. But also in the South, you still had embodied memories of lynchings, so that history was alive. This is not to say that there weren’t some terribly racist reporters and editors. Of course, there were some papers that actively tried to downplay the civil rights movement. But there were some folks who were really, like, “We know what the impact of this is, and we’re not going to add fuel to it.”
One woman reporting in North Carolina in that era said that their policy was to cover Klan rallies with only the basic who, what, when, where. Literally just that it happened. They did not ask people for quotes, and they certainly wouldn’t run anything that was racist. Another, from Florida, said the difference was that local journalism was still thriving in the seventies. These were not reporters flown in from New York or from Washington DC, they were members of the communities they covered. They would sometimes know the people at the Klan rallies.
So I think that the answer of how to cover Unite the Right 2 this weekend is simple. We know what it is, what the ideologies are. We don’t need to reward them with direct quotes.
What doesn’t get discussed often enough is how much we don’t know. One of the critiques of journalism historically is the gatekeeper issue, that you control whose voices come in and whose voices go out. That can be really problematic if only certain voices or certain stories are being represented. When you’re trying to assess the ethics of coverage, one of the big questions is what do you not know about people’s motives, people’s behaviors, what might happen as a result of your coverage. And if you can’t make a clear headed threat assessment of the impact your reporting will have, you should be worried.
I started noticing that a lot of the reporters on the technology, internet culture beat were young and spent their teenage years on 4chan. It was a big part of millennials’ upbringings. Those reporters who were most strongly connected to troll culture were also the ones who were surfacing information and publishing listicles of all the terrible stuff people were doing. But they were also the most inclined to see it all as regular old trolling that they had grown accustomed to. So they were reporting on these white supremacists, but they bought into the idea of ironic racism. Those posts were familiar, they weren’t scary; they were inoculated to some of trolling culture’s dangers. Also worth noting is that these reporters were all white, mostly upper middle class, and primarily men. So they were able to hold the material at arm’s length. It was “just trolling.” It was “just memes.” It was “just the internet.” So then they’re reporting on it, pointing and laughing, essentially, because it was funny.
Then older reporters, who didn’t know anything about trolling culture, reported on it with the opposite myopia. The younger reporters were too close to it. The older reporters were too far away from it. It created this feedback loop where this content was being serviced, and then it was being taken totally seriously. It wasn’t placed in the context of trolling rhetoric. It was reported as fact, straight-faced. Then these older reporters would go to those trolls and put their quotes in the newspapers. It was a confluence of both of those blind spots that helped conjure the alt-right in the ways that it ultimately manifested.
Doing this work has made me more sympathetic to the individual plight of reporters. Our system is geared towards media manipulation on a massive scale. There are a lot of reasons why we’re in the mess that we’re in. Some of it has to do with reporters making bad choices, but the system is just set up to be manipulated. Those younger reporters are absolutely devastated by the role that they played in the amplification of this information. It’s not that they were actively trying to be unethical. They were doing what was assigned.
Understand that the whole Richard Spencer, Brooks Brothers version of white nationalism is a trap. They really do their best to sound very reasonable, like this is a legitimate ideology, just like anti-racism is. They are almost more dangerous when they are not saying something explicitly racist, because when something is explicitly racist it’s pretty easy for the average person to point at it and say, that’s a racist statement. But the white nationalists are employing scientific race theory and identitarianism, and saying “I’m just proud of being white, what’s so wrong with that?” Anything that makes them seem like reasonable, soft-spoken individuals who really deserve a seat at the mainstream table is actually the thing to be most on guard against. That doesn’t mean that you can’t explain what they say and then contextualize—explain that this is code. If you explain the rhetorical strategies, that is different than just quoting and making it seem through repetition like it’s just any other kind of ideology. Any iteration of family-friendly, camera-ready racism is not equivalent ideologically or morally to being anti-racist. It just is not. And anything that makes it seem like that equivalency exists is dangerous.
Whitney Phillips is an incoming assistant professor of communications and rhetoric at Syracuse University. She has studied media manipulation for 10 years.
From an interview with John Sepulvado
It’s not just fire that needs oxygen. Firefighters need oxygen as well. My belief is that we need to be able, as a society, to look at these horrible things and understand them so that we can then be able to combat them. Not covering this is essentially treating it like a cold. Like saying, “Oh, I’m just going to pretend that I don’t have a cold.” But this is a cancer, and not covering it is basically the same as saying, “I’m going to pretend I don’t have a tumor.”
The press is supposed to humanize people. A lot of times humanization is misunderstood as making a person seem more relatable, but that’s not true. Sometimes humanizing someone actually can show what monsters lurk in their hearts.
For example, the Bundys in Nevada. People took that as a joke. A lot of people think ignorance fuels the hate, but when I started asking questions, I saw that hate was fueling the ignorance. And so the approach I took was to really get at what people’s grievances are. Not just the general, “the government doesn’t listen to us,” but specifically. What we came to find was that a lot of the grievances had to do with race. A lot of the grievances had to do with ideas of masculinity with an anti-modernity bent.
There’s a generational movement right now to win elections. There’s a group in California, which has actually grown quite large, called Identity Evropa. Patrick Little, an avowed neo-Nazi, just won 62,000 votes in California’s primary for U.S. Senate. I mean, The New York Times published a story about how Corey Stewart, the lead candidate for the Senate GOP primary, has ties to white nationalists. Kris Kobach, in Kansas, has ties to white nationalists. There is no promise that tomorrow is going to be a typical day in America. Not covering that is feeding the beast, much the same way, ironically enough, that CNN and MSNBC and The Times and others fed Donald Trump’s candidacy by treating it like a joke.
So when people wearing QAnon shirts show up at a presidential rally, I think that there is a need to explain what this is—and, again, look at some of the most vulgar parts. But the idea that the press could grow QAnon it is just arrogant.
I have an uncle who lives in Idaho. I love my uncle. He’s a cool dude. He thinks 9/11 was an inside job. He thinks that Osama bin Laden is not dead. He’s definitely a QAnon guy. The reason people feel this way is because what they see on TV, the things that are presented to them as news, often don’t relate to their lives. And so they look for other explanations to try and understand why their condition is so shitty. There is a real movement in the hinterlands and it’s not just about QAnon; it’s about uranium deals in Russia, drug cartels, and MS13.
At some point we really lost our way. The press can’t grow this stuff by covering it. The press is just becoming aware of QAnon—and other conspiracy theories that have been percolating since the late nineties, and that now have a platform to disseminate. People don’t understand why the media images they are constantly seeing have nothing to do with their lives, people feel disconnected, and people feel like they don’t have any power. And so, instead of trying to seize power, they’re turning to these conspiracy theories to explain their condition. When you’re powerless, the one thing you can control is the narrative.
I did think that the local press did a phenomenal job covering what happened in Portland this past weekend. My former employers, Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Oregonian, really took a tack of debunking a lot of this nonsense. They presented the players who are trying to cause problems as they are, not as people with legitimate gripes leading legitimate protests. I was really proud of them. The Willamette Week, which is the alternative weekly, took a more aggressive approach, but not only did they not claim that these people have a valid free speech concern, they said those people are really there for a street brawl. I was really proud of the details they paid attention to. They held the police accountable. They conducted civic journalism at the highest levels.
What I saw from the national outlets was that they were really playing this like a sports thing. Those guys versus these guys—they played up the battle aspect of it. And it was disgusting to watch.
It’s important that the press recognize these marches for the propaganda machines they are. Keep your cool. I’ve seen reporters not be able to maintain their professionalism because they feel that they’re under threat. And I understand that, I really do. But the minute that happens, somebody is filming it. And that is going to be used as propaganda. The idea is to show themselves being tough, and then also show themselves being victimized in the same breath—so that they can persuade other like-minded people to go from being online warriors, to getting out into the streets.
Respect the threat these people represent and contextualize it. The first thing is, you have to know your history and be able to see that what these people are saying actually echoes racism in the past. Spanish colonial slave owners made arguments that are very similar to those that white nationalists use today—that white people deserve dominion and power—and the United States government committed genocide against native peoples according to a belief that white people are superior to others. The second thing is to follow abhorrent ideas to their logical conclusion. Drill down just the way you would in any story.
So I think that there’s no real way to combat it other than to just do your goddamn job. Ask these people why they believe what they believe. As you start to look at that, their arguments fall apart. And there you see them for what they are, the naked racism. I just really reject this idea that we shouldn’t look at this. It’s our job to document the human condition, and that includes the ugly parts.
John Sepulvado hosts the California Report at KQED in San Francisco. He has covered extreme right-wing militarism since 2014.