NPR, ‘Unite the Right,’ and how journalists cover white nationalism

Sunday’s gathering of white nationalists in Washington, DC, presented journalists with what CJR’s Amanda Darrach calls “a media riddle.” When only a handful of participants show up for a much-hyped event, is it still news? Based on the deluge of coverage across outlets, especially in the run-up to the planned march, the consensus answer seemed to be “yes.” But that presents an important question in its own right: How should we cover white nationalism?

Much of that conversation over the past several days has centered around an NPR interview with rally organizer Jason Kessler. Noel King’s Morning Edition interview with Kessler drew intense criticism for giving a platform to Kessler’s noxious views, and the underwhelming turnout at his event only stoked arguments that NPR was helping promote fringe ideas with little actual support.

NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik offered his view on the controversy Monday morning. “My feeling, as somebody who tries to think hard about the media, is that almost no figure, no matter how heinous, should be off limits—not Hitler, not Stalin, not Pol Pot,” Folkenflik said. “But you’ve got to be very, very clear about what you want to accomplish and how you’ll achieve it.” He defended King’s line of questioning, noting that she did push back at times and that the interview was edited from nearly 70 minutes to under seven. Ultimately, Folkenflik deemed it “a tough call” for NPR whether it should have aired the segment, and asked, “what insight do such interviews offer that a reported story could not?”

ICYMI: New Yorker writer makes important observation about Omarosa’s recent Trump bombshells

The interview with Kessler was only one of several segments that NPR ran preceding Sunday’s march, many of which focused on people dealing with the aftermath of Charlottesville. Count me among those who felt the outlet’s audience would have been better served by another reported piece that could have included clips from its Kessler interview surrounded by reporting and pushback from other voices. At the same time, it is to NPR’s credit that it is consistently willing to report on itself when controversies arise. 

But if NPR erred in its approach to this story, that still leaves open the question of what’s the right way to cover extremism. CJR’s Darrach provided a point/counterpoint argument over “whether press coverage of this movement exposes important truths or merely disseminates harmful messages.” In covering these movements, of course, it is vital to keep in mind the people whose lives are affected by the views and actions of the racists. Less time for Kessler and his ilk, and more focus on those suffering under and working to combat racism is probably a good place to start. 

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The organized white supremacist movement that reared its head in Charlottesville last year may be faltering, but race continues to be the defining fault line in American life. Racism—in both its institutional and extreme forms—is, if anything, under-covered. So while criticism of flawed execution is warranted, sustained coverage of race in America is vital.

Below, more on the aftermath of a terrible anniversary.

  • Unpacking the Kessler interview: NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen offered a nuanced examination of the outlet’s decision to run the Kessler piece. Her conclusion: “NPR has decided it will air these interviews. I am on the fence about whether they are necessary. But if NPR is going to go that route, it needs to strengthen its practices for a more responsible execution.”
  • Covering the march: On Monday, The Washington Post ran a front-page, below-the-fold story on the protest in DC, while The New York Times shunted its coverage to A13 (it did run a photo on the front page). The Times has a front-page piece on disarray within the white supremacist movement
  • One year later: Politico asked 16 people, from Cornel West to Tim Kaine, what last year’s events in Charlottesville changed.
  • What about Anitfa? The Washington Post’s Avi Selk reports on the loosely organized anti-fascist group that showed up in force on Sunday. With few white nationalists to fight, Antifa members turned some of their ire on the press. “Journalists covering the rally shared stories of cameras being yanked and reporters accosted by members of the same movement that claims it is protecting free society,” Selk writes.

 

Other notable stories

  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram profiles Civil, the media startup that is attempting to reimagine the way people pay for their news. Civil’s goal, Ingram writes, is to “invent a global platform for independent journalism, powered by blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, governed by an open-source constitution—including an advisory council that will act as a kind of Supreme Court to adjudicate ethical disputes—and run as a non-profit foundation.”
  • The staff of Thrillist has walked off the job, frustrated with the lack of progress in negotiations with its parent company Group Nine Media. Splinter’s Paul Blest reports that unionized staffers decided to escalate their pressure on management last week after a frustrating round of negotiations.
  • CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that more than 200 newspapers across the country plan to run editorials this Thursday defending the press and criticizing the president’s anti-media rhetoric. The idea was spearheaded by The Boston Globe, and has been backed by the American Society of News Editors and the Radio Television Digital News Association.
  • Of interest to those hoping for tell-all interviews with former White House staffers: “President Trump appeared to acknowledge on Monday something his aides have declined to confirm for months: that his White House had aides sign nondisclosure agreements,” NYT’s Maggie Haberman writes. Haberman notes that the agreements are “essentially unenforceable for government employees.”
  • OZY Media has formed an in-house production studio, doubling the size of its video team, reports The Wrap’s Sean Burch.

From archives: The outrageous editorial by a Charlottesville daily that preceded violence

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