A TV news segment in Maine last week threw into stark relief the peril of pursuing journalistic balance, especially when one side is openly racist.
In a clip aired August 14 on Portland’s WCSH-TV Channel 6, reporter Tennyson Coleman interviewed “Mike,” an anonymous Mainer and self-described adherent of the so-called “alt-right” who attended the now infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
In the two-minute segment that aired initially, “Mike” expounds on his white-nationalist views and what he says he experienced in Virginia, with little pushback from Coleman. The station later showed the full interview, which included more critical questions from the reporter, and also added a video interview in which the reporter explained his rationale for pursuing the story.
The segment was a hot-button item on the station’s Facebook page, where it racked up hundreds of comments. And it struck a chord with Coleman’s fellow reporters in Maine, some of whom publicly questioned the station’s decision to shield the subject’s identity, and criticized the lack of push-back and the decision to air the man’s blatantly racist views at all, when his side’s actions and words, both online and in the streets, had already gotten plenty of airtime.
Our intent was to expose this point of view and to expose that there are people in Maine with these views.”
CJR reached out to Coleman, who referred all questions to Karen Araiza, the station’s news director. Araiza says the goal of the interview and story, which Coleman proposed and his bosses approved, was to expose the man’s hateful views and show Mainers that people like “Mike,” who claim to oppose violence despite arguing for segregated ethno-states, are present in the community.
WCSH has extensively covered the reactions of people outraged by the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, and to Araiza, the “Mike” segment was less an attempt at balance than reporting on a newsworthy trend of more Mainers openly touting extreme, white-nationalist viewpoints.
“If you’re asking me if every time we go and hear from people who are talking about how this is horrible, do we need to go find ‘White Mike’ for comment, the answer is no,” she tells CJR. “Our intent was to expose this point of view and to expose that there are people in Maine with these views.”
As a journalist and as an American, I've learned to cherish the 1st Amendment. It came with and still comes with a price we all pay.
— Tennyson Coleman (@TennysonTV) August 14, 2017
For critics, however, the interview highlighted the potential pitfalls of interviewing a subject with extreme views and giving him a chance to both broadcast his hate and downplay the violence of his message, says Mario Moretto, a former newspaper reporter and current communications operative in Maine Democratic politics.
“Covering hate groups has always been a tricky proposition for journalists, and if you’re going to expose someone’s viewpoints, you have to be very careful,” Moretto says. “These organizations thrive on being the victim, and it’s not hard to imagine that this guy might have a motive to downplay how extreme he is.”
Balance is a tightrope act
The conversation sparked by the interview underscored the tightrope act journalists face when an attempt at balance veers toward handing a megaphone to a racist, Moretto says.
“The fatal flaw of both-sidesism in the case of Charlottesville is it assumes that there are two equally valid sides of the story,” he says. “The question journalists always have to ask themselves is, whose interest is served by letting this guy go out there and say ‘hey, we’re not really that bad’?”
It is beyond dispute that the rally in Charlottesville was organized as a white-nationalist event: Organizer Jason Kessler said in a radio interview preceding the rally that he planned it as a “pro-white” demonstration.
But in the WCSH segment, and in the written copy on the station’s website, the station allowed “Mike” to dispute that, qualifying his claims only with the point that “many say” the rally was in support of white supremacy. That’s weak at best, says Peter Moskowitz, a freelance journalist who reported from Charlottesville for the website Splinter and was nearly mowed down in the car attack on counter-protesters.
“I interview terrible people all the time, including in Charlottesville, but I’m against the idea that you shouldn’t challenge them or their ideas,” says Moskowitz.
Everyone knows Maine is one of the whitest states in the country, and once you get outside southern Maine, you see very few people of color, and in the current climate, people are not feeling safe.”
Shay Stewart-Bouley, who for the past decade has written about race in Maine on her “Black Girl in Maine” blog, said she wished more attention had been paid to the state’s tenuous politics around race when the station was considering airing the views of a white nationalist.
“I can tell you that this absolutely has the power to make people of color feel unsafe in Maine,” she says. “Everyone knows Maine is one of the whitest states in the country, and once you get outside southern Maine, you see very few people of color, and in the current climate, people are not feeling safe.”
She says the station should consider “who’s harmed” by giving “open-ended access to people to air their hateful ideas.”
The day after the original interview aired, the station released a “reporter’s notebook” segment, in which the journalist who interviewed “Mike” talked with an anchor about the interview and its goals. The station also posted the uncut interview, in which Coleman is shown challenging “Mike” more than the original segment let on.
In the “notebook” segment, Coleman says the best way to find truth is to consider all viewpoints, even ugly ones. “I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but who am I to put tape over your mouth,” he said in the video.
A lot of things are not easy. Doesn't mean we should run from them. Thank you!
— Tennyson Coleman (@TennysonTV) August 16, 2017
Objectivity after Charlottesville
Until the violence in Virginia, it had been something of a banner year for sympathetic profiles of white supremacists. White nationalist Richard Spencer has been thoroughly enjoying the spotlight, despite the occasional punch.
In contrast, Araiza says, WSCH 6’s past coverage of issues around race has given lots of airtime to events such as Black Lives Matter rallies and anti-racist protests after Charlottesville. “Our thinking with this interview was that people need to know this is out there, and to understand that it isn’t just happening in other places,” Araiza says.
But two minutes does not leave much room for nuance, something Araiza acknowledges, saying she wished she had aired a longer version of the interview that could have given the station more of a chance to add context to the man’s statements.
So how do journalists interview white-supremacists in a way that doesn’t hand control of the reporting over to extremists?
In a much-praised, half-hour documentary, Vice News managed to get close access to members of one neo-Nazi group, let them talk at length, and showed just how ugly their words and actions were. But with a subject as sensitive as giving airtime to white supremacists, reporters must consider whether they can adequately frame the subject given the resources at hand, Moretto says.
The temptation to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth is understandable, but the answer doesn’t have to be to give airtime to extremists, especially when they have every incentive to paint a rosier picture of their own views and emphasize the violence of the counter-protesters, as “Mike” did in his interview, Moretto says.
“If you need to get inside a Nazi’s head, why not talk to experts on hate groups, talk to people who study this,” he says. “Those people can give a perspective that will help your viewers or your readers understand what’s going without just parroting the talking points. It’s about presenting their views in a responsible way.”