Behind the story: ‘The white flight of Derek Black’ by Eli Saslow

Derek Black (Photograph by Matt McClain

Every six weeks or so, the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow publishes thousands of carefully chosen, economically deployed words. More often than not, the Pulitzer-winning reporter sheds light on people who would not otherwise receive the longform treatment: Texans on food stamps, or a nurse aide in Ohio, or an undocumented immigrant.

October’s story was something of a departure–a profile of Derek Black, who is, put crudely, white supremacist royalty. His father Don founded the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront. His godfather* is David Duke. And for many years, Derek himself was an influential member of the movement. Now, however, he’s gone the other way; last month, he even wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Why I Left White Nationalism.”

Saslow’s 6,500-word profile, “The white flight of Derek Black,” is the story of that transformation. It required a month of reporting. For his efforts, The Post told me, “it was one of the most-read stories on our site for days.”

What follows is the first in an occasional series in which a journalist walks us through the process of conceiving, reporting, writing, and editing a particularly powerful and/or noteworthy piece. (We strongly encourage you to read the story first.)

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It was a wandering path toward this piece. After Dylann Roof shot all those people in Charleston, there were a lot of mentions of Stormfront. People thought Roof had posted a bunch there. That’s maybe true, maybe not true. So I started reading Stormfront, and the biggest, monster thread on there is about Derek’s defection.

You know when a story just sticks in your head? I got so excited about the possibility of writing that story.

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This was probably early summer of 2015. It was hard to find Derek because he’d altered his name. He’d gone very quiet in the two-and-a-half years since he’d left the white nationalist movement. I knew he wanted to continue on to graduate school. For what he was studying, there were only so many graduate programs, and I found somebody with the same last name and middle initial. Then I searched for photos of that person and was quickly able to piece it together. I did a property records search and found his email address and landlord’s phone number.

When I first emailed him, it felt a little bit like he was hiding and I’d found him. The immediate reaction was, Whoa, do not write about this. Please give me space and don’t contact me. One thing that maybe helped Derek and I build mutual trust is I told him, My goal here is not to out you. This is not a story that I can do without you. Which was true.

I walked away for a year. I couldn’t write that story without Derek because it’s the story of his transformation; I wouldn’t have been capable of doing that from the outside in. Also, I’m not sure if, ethically, I would have felt all that good about outing him. Even though he’s done things that made him a public figure, he’d at that point removed himself from the spotlight, publicly apologized, and made an effort to distance himself from that. I assumed he would never come around.

Saslow.jpg

Reporter Eli Saslow (Photo courtesy The Washington Post)

Nearly a year went by. The Trump stuff was looking more and more realistic. So many of these racial politics–the overtones of that–were becoming more essential in the campaign. I thought he could talk about this in ways that few other people could.

We talked over the phone several times and, in early August, he decided to do it. The moment in the country changed his mind. When I first contacted him, he felt like he could slip away quietly and that he could leave this fringy thing behind. He hadn’t done all that much damage, he thought, and he could just go on with his life. As Derek saw what was happening in this country, and also in Europe, he decided it was his responsibility to address this stuff.

Derek hadn’t talked a lot about it. In fact, most people in his life either knew him as a student living in the Midwest–they had no idea about his past–or they knew him as a white nationalist and didn’t know what had happened to him since. For most people, these two parts of his life were not connected, so it was complicated terrain for him to navigate.

If Derek had not wanted to cooperate with me, I’m pretty sure [his father] Don wouldn’t have, either. As fraught as parts of that relationship have become, they’re both really trying to respect each other as father and son. It was probably difficult for Don to talk about stuff that was closer to the bone–his own family. Don wasn’t used to being made vulnerable. He was used to being able to dismiss what everybody was saying about him because he was this stereotype for racist hate.

Most people were happy to talk to me, but some didn’t want to talk on the record. That was mostly people at New College who had probably never been written about in any capacity and reasonably decided they did not want their first Google hit to be their association with the white supremacist movement.

I try to write not from a place of judgment, but from a place of honesty and empathy. The more time I spend with people, the more I like them and the more I’m capable of writing about them with nuance. That difference is clear in the story with Don and Derek’s mother, who never talks to press and probably never will. She comes off very differently because she’s not speaking for herself. I always think it’s better for the people involved if they decide to participate. Of course, that part’s not always–and not often–in our control.

There was so much documentation of everything in the moment. That was a huge luxury, and it was one of the things that attracted me to the story. New College has an online forum, so I had hundreds of pages of in-the-moment dialogue. Stormfront has this message board that’s very well archived. That gave me this other side of what was happening. Then Derek and Don have this radio show, so I had archives of that, too. Friends shared contemporaneous emails and text messages. It was really helpful because instead of having to pull out of the moment with quotes like, I remember when that happened, and this is what I was thinking, I could just say exactly what people were thinking.

I knew if Derek participated and Don did not, I would be okay because Don had been writing about this on Stormfront. The story certainly would not have been as good, but it would have worked.

Reporting was a pretty concentrated month. I spent a bunch of time with Derek. The first trip we spent three or four days together. Then I took another, geographically-confused trip where I went from home in Portland to West Palm Beach to see Don, and then from there up to the upper Midwest to see Derek again, then back home. There were a couple of longer trips.

I try to remove the time pressure from interviews. If I know I’m going to be with Derek for three more days, suddenly the pressure to make sure that I’m looking around the room and writing everything down about the scene is diminished. I know I have time to breathe. There are going to be quiet moments in conversation. There are going to be moments where we’re just hanging out and we’re not even talking about white nationalism. In those moments, I can use my notebook to write about the things going on around him.

The other thing that takes the pressure off is there are very few quotes in a story that are told to me. It’s essentially a stylistic decision. For me, as a reader, stories are most powerful when you can sort of disappear into them. If you’re being reminded all the time of the presence of a reporter in these quotes, I think it becomes a little bit harder to disappear into the narrative. My guess is there are no quotes from Derek. The quotes from Derek are speeches that were recorded in 2008 or things that he was saying with his dad on the radio. I know that when I’m talking to people, if I don’t get the words down exactly right, that’s okay because I’m not going to be quoting them. What I need is huge amounts of information and I need to go back over that information again and again with them to make sure I have it right.

I taped every interview with Don just because of his experience in the press. I wanted to be doubly sure of absolutely everything I was doing with him. There are a few verbatim quotes said to me from Don about the time that Derek came back to his birthday party and things like that.

If I’m having a sit-down, formal interview with somebody, I use a tape recorder. Most of the other stories I write–if I’m spending a week with a family that just lost a kid in Newtown–I’m with them for too long to record everything. I’m showing up to their house at six in the morning, and I’m leaving when they’re going to bed at 10. I’m doing that day after day after day. It would be insane for me to try to take down everything that happens.

I would listen to Derek and Don’s radio show when I was going for a run. I tried to marinate in it. I tried to sink into that world a little bit, but I wasn’t so deep in that it was really troubling me.

This story, in some ways, is different for me because oftentimes the stories I write rely almost 100 percent on observed scene and dialogue. If I’m writing about a family with a kid who got shot, usually I’m there sitting in the living room day after day and trying to fade in their lives and watch things play out. There are ways in which that’s a much more rewarding kind of reporting, but it’s also way more emotionally exhausting.

Structuring the story took three or four days. I had a clear sense of the general narrative arc because the story has a clear narrative arc. I knew it was going to be the story of a transformation, so I knew that for the bulk of the piece I was going to rely on chronology.

The story’s start has a lot of advantages because it captures Derek at his height of influence in the movement. This makes the stakes of the transformation higher and accentuates how far he travels during that transformation. I wanted Don to at least appear in the first scene because he ends up being such a big character. It was right after Obama got elected, and they’re talking about the political future of the party. Even though it’s a scene from 2008, the story feels, at least a little bit, about now.

I was worried about the pacing of Derek’s transformation. Because it’s a newspaper story, the transformation is going to happen fast, within a few thousand words. His mind has to change relatively quickly. But I did not want it to be like, He’s a white nationalist and now suddenly he says, This stuff is all hogwash, because that would not be true to reality. In real time, that happened over a number of years.

If you’re structuring stories based on what you want, you’re going to run into problems. Sometimes I’ll structure a story and as I start writing I’ll realize, Shit, I don’t have whatever… There are too many holes in the reporting. When the reporting doesn’t support the structure, the story fails pretty quickly.

Writing the story took maybe a week and change. Writing can be super hard for me. It doesn’t necessarily feel as natural to me as structure does. As I’m reporting, I’m always thinking about structure–Shit, this scene of him coming back to his dad’s birthday party, that’s a big scene. There needs to be some emotional reckoning in that moment.

I knew the core of the story was about Derek and Don. I knew I wanted the story to end in the moment. It’s really the only scene of the story that is in the moment. It’s a little bit of a flash-forward section. The section begins pretty squarely with Derek, and you’re almost traveling forward through the last few years of his life with him as he’s started drinking tap water and traveled and tried to get as far outside of the movement as possible. I knew that once the two of them had that conversation, that would be a good place to end.

I did a round or two of edits with David Finkel, who I work with really closely. We’ve been working together for so long, I think we think about stuff mostly the same.

Usually, when I turn something in, we’re down to the sentence-to-sentence level pretty quickly. In this case, the biggest change was the first section of the story. It was largely the same as it is now, but I didn’t do a good enough job on the implications of the moment. I was relying a little too much on the reader to see all the connections without just explicitly saying, Now in the age of Trump, all of this stuff is coming to the fray. David pushed me on that.

We don’t have fact-checkers, so basically my fact-checking process was just going back to Don and Derek more explicitly than I normally would and making sure, Okay, is this exactly right? I went back to them during those two weeks where I was structuring and writing, and I probably talked with Derek every other day. Then I walked them both through it in a more detailed way than I normally would with people I’m writing about. So much of it was recreated and I really wanted to make sure I had it right.

They didn’t push back at anything. Frankly, I think Don was like, What, you’re telling me what the story is going to be about before it runs? He was just very surprised by that part of the process.

In the stories I’m most proud of, what I hope I’ve done is walked the reader up to a clear pane of glass, and they’ve had a direct interaction with the story. They haven’t felt my presence in it and they feel like they’ve seen something for themselves. The conclusions that you draw feel entirely like your own.

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It’s essentially a stylistic decision. For me, as a reader, stories are most powerful when you can sort of disappear into them. If you’re being reminded all the time of the presence of a reporter in these quotes, I think it becomes a little bit harder to disappear into the narrative. My guess is there are no quotes from Derek. The quotes from Derek are speeches that were recorded in 2008 or things that he was saying with his dad on the radio. I know that when I’m talking to people, if I don’t get the words down exactly right, that’s okay because I’m not going to be quoting them. What I need is huge amounts of information and I need to go back over that information again and again with them to make sure I have it right.


*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to David Duke as Derek Black’s uncle. Duke is Black’s godfather.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.