The media today: How not to write about a Nazi

“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.”

ICYMI: Explosive BuzzFeed scoop raises eyebrows

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.”

ICYMI: The story the NYTimes, BuzzFeed didn’t want to publish

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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.

ICYMI: “We’re the dominant publication in the most populous, wealthiest state in the country”

Below, more on the reaction to the Times’s piece.

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.