At UNC Charlotte in North Carolina on Tuesday, April 30, a 22-year-old man allegedly shot six people in his anthropology class with a handgun, wounding four and killing two. Three days earlier, on the last day of Passover, in Poway, California, a 19-year-old man walked into a synagogue with what police described as an “AR-type assault weapon” and now stands accused of killing a 60-year-old woman and injuring another congregant, the rabbi, and an 8-year-old girl.
The motive of the suspect in the UNC Charlotte murders is not publicly known. The New York Times wrote that the local chief of police had refused to discuss the topic with its reporters, but that he had indicated the accused killer’s choice of target was not random.
The motive of the suspect in Poway is clear, not least from the manifesto he left online before the shooting—which circulated in paraphrase and quotation by the press, and in full on social media and on the growing number of white nationalist outlets, which are especially prominent on YouTube. He wanted to be associated with other racist murderers: the Christchurch mosque killer, the Tree of Life synagogue killer, and, of course, Hitler. He distributed his manifesto on internet troll hive 8chan; and he planned to livestream the murders on Facebook, though he failed.
There remains significant disagreement among journalists who cover the far right over how to portray killers seeking notoriety, and the organizations that inspire and abet them, sometimes with journalistic pretensions. In CJR, Tow Center director Emily Bell described the increasingly popular idea of “stochastic terrorism:” “Where there is a saturation of inflammatory rhetoric about ideology or particular groups, the theory goes, it becomes statistically likely that some lone wolf will take the bait,” Bell wrote. As Joan Donovan, a researcher with Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center, told CJR’s Mathew Ingram, “trusted information brokers, like journalists and news organizations, are important targets for piggybacking misinformation campaigns into the public sphere.” Donovan has closely studied coverage of the Klan 1960s and ‘70s; many reporters in that period agreed not to cover Klan rallies or show photos of people wearing Klan hoods and frocks.
So should journalists take the same approach when covering what seems to be a resurgence of hate groups in America? The options span the spectrum, from simply ignoring them, even when they commit terrible crimes, to characterizing them as contemptible bigots whose influence extends only to small groups of credulous people. On the one hand, perhaps they should be characterized as neighborly types, whose desire for ethnic cleansing lies below a veneer of politeness, or, on the other, straight-up crazed psychopaths. Should journalists adopt the tactics of nonprofits such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and anarchist and anti-fascist media outlet It’s Going Down, which devote more resources to confirming and publishing the real names of pseudonymous racist leaders than they do to parsing their motivations?
At a discussion held before the Poway shooting by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, where I am editor, photojournalist Glenna Gordon strongly advocated for the pathetic-losers approach, mentioning an image in which one of her subjects arranged his breakfast into the shape of a Nazi symbol. “They want you to see them as a unified bloc of scary people, when really it’s douchebags making a swastika out of french toast at a diner,” she said.
Nina Berman, also a decorated photojournalist, averred. Whether the groups were small and badly organized or not, she said, they are still often violent.
Berman also cited one other significant danger in ignoring the motivations and arguments of people bent on ethnic cleansing. “The alt-right is making their own platforms and their own media,” she said. “I think there’s the assumption that if you don’t report it, they won’t know about it. And I think that’s a flawed assumption,” Berman tells CJR. “And when I say, Don’t report it, I mean the press outlets of integrity and journalistic standards, because other people will report on it, on their own groups and message boards. So who are you actually denying that information to?”
Berman warned against exoticizing the far right when it comes to limiting coverage. “My sense from what I’ve read is that any kind of shooter wants power, exposure and some sort of celebrity, whether that’s the Virginia Tech shooter or the Columbine kids or somebody with a racist or anti-semitic intention,” she says.
Coverage of right-wing violence invariably addresses the outlets that aid young men in their radicalization, whether it is neo-Nazi news and discussion groups like Stormfront or simply message board chatter on 8chan, 4chan, Gab, and Reddit. Activists have pushed to deplatorm the high-profile players in this world, which has hurt Stormfront in particular. But others whose work extremists cite as influential, such as Steven Crowder, Breitbart wunderkind Milo Yiannopoulos, and former InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson, operate on platforms like YouTube and Instagram, where there are lax content policies and only sporadic monitoring.
Those policies are not lax by accident, Vice’s Tess Owen pointed out at the event. “If they crack down on white nationalists, they’d have to crack down on Republican lawmakers, because white nationalists are talking like Republicans, and Republican lawmakers are talking like white nationalists,” she said. “We might hesitate to call a politician a racist because of the implications, and that’s a challenge for journalists as well.”
That challenge is made more difficult by closer commerce than most journalists like to admit between far-right news outlets that advocate for ethnic cleansing and political intellectuals at major publications. Many vocal white supremacists have bylines at respected outlets such as The National Review and The American Conservative; Peter Brimelow, founder of anti-immigrant website VDare, was an editor at the Review, now he publishes fellow white supremacists John Derbyshire and Steve Sailer, both Review veterans. Jason Kessler, who organized the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville where an attendee murdered protestor Heather Heyer, wrote for The Daily Caller several times; Scott Greer, who contributed under a pseudonym to neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s Radix Journal, was an editor at the Caller. Some of these publications jettisoned some of the men mentioned above, but in most cases, their names still sit next to those of mainstream conservative columnists, guest essayists, and editors at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.
It’s the job of journalists to call attention to these connections, especially when they affect the professional networks in which they themselves operate. Katie McHugh, a semi-remorseful ex-Breitbart and Daily Caller writer, told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray that by invoking the late Joe Sobran, a writer fired from The National Review for anti-Semitism, she was awarded a fellowship from George Mason’s Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). The director of IHS’s journalism program, John Elliott, wrote to McHugh approvingly, saying he had been a friend of Sobran’s, and granted her the fellowship; he later introduced her to arguably the world’s most prominent Holocaust denier, David Irving—also a Sobran partisan—with whom she remained in contact. Elliott found her an internship at the Caller. Asked about introducing McHugh to Irving, Elliott told Gray he didn’t necessarily agree with Irving but found him “interesting and controversial.”
Describing the extremity of the views of white nationalists is crucial to the coverage of the far right, according to Berman. “It needs to be put in written context that these people believe in the annihilation and separation of nonwhite, non-Christian people,” she said.Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.