The Media’s White Supremacist Dilemma

On October 17th, NBC’s Today Show ran a controversial segment on the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.  This incident demonstrates the challenges media groups encounter when covering white nationalist groups.

Peter Alexander, an NBC national correspondent, sat down with Patrick Casey, leader of Identity Evropa, a group whose website claims they are a “group of patriotic American Identitarians who have realized that we are descended from the great traditions, history, and people that flowed from Europe.” The Southern Poverty Law Center; however, has labeled Identity Evropa a hate group.

During Alexander’s interview, Casey revealed a goal of the group: recruiting college students. Members go to College Republican groups to “network with people, to, somewhat discreetly at first, start broaching identitarian and nationalist ideas.”

Near the end of the segment, Alexander challenged Casey: “Isn’t America’s diversity its greatest strength?” Casey responded, “That is just a mantra to make people feel good.” To Identity Evropa, diversity is unnatural, harms the white identity and hinders society from flourishing.

NBC referenced the group’s anti-immigration demonstrations and pro-white sentiments. However, as Washington Post writer Eli Rosenberg points out, some important negative information about the group was withheld. For example, Identity Evropa’s founder, Nathan Domingo, was radicalized by KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s writings during a four year prison stint for armed robbery.

The Today Show received significant backlash as some felt Alexander did not denounce the group or Casey’s views strongly enough. The Daily Beast writer Kelly Weill wrote a scathing article stating that the piece “turned into a sales pitch for the racist organization.” She condemned the interview for failing to press Casey on important issues, such as how his catchword of identitarianism differs from racism.

Today gave Casey its platform of millions of viewers,” said Fortune, reiterating a common argument that when media organizations cover white supremacy groups, they risk doing more harm than good. Are stories about such groups simply providing a platform to spread hateful messages? Are stories about such groups normalizing white supremacists?

At the core of this issue is a dilemma. Should the news report on white supremacy and risk spreading their ideas or ignore white supremacy and allow potentially dangerous groups to carry on without being checked or covered?

The NBC controversy is not the only example of this dilemma. This New York Times article received backlash for “normalizing” a white supremacist. This NPR interview with a white supremacist also received significant backlash.

Despite adverse responses, there seems to be an agreement in the journalism industry that these groups need to be covered. “We believe that reporting on racism, anti-Semitism, and the people and groups who espouse them is a crucial responsibility for journalists today,” said the New York Times in a statement accompanying an article on the alt-right.

Eli Rodgers agrees, stating “The answer is not to simply avoid covering racists and the hateful groups they’ve formed.…”

What is the answer?

This is a difficult question, a question the media is still very much in the process of parsing out. The Guardian and New York Public Radio teamed up to discuss the dilemma and potential answers with producer and Guardian writer Jesse Brenneman.

Brenneman acknowledges that the dilemma is difficult and that there is no right answer. Stories have been changed and editors have questioned themselves endlessly because of it. “I think it’s a good burden for journalists to feel, which is that everything I do may be perpetuating something and I need to be OK with that fact.”

Especially challenging is the reality that white supremacists sometimes act with the goal of getting on the news and receiving negative coverage.

“They don’t necessarily love every story in the media but they have a real sense of, ‘If I do this, I’m going to get coverage, and then, at the end of the day you know the people who agree with me are going to see me as having made the right enemies and it’ll have been worth it in the end.’ It’s really, really hard.”

In light of these challenges, Brenneman proposes some solutions.

“I think what we need to get better at is really generally talking about, OK so call yourself what you want, but let’s look at this thing that you’re advocating for that would have this effect.”

Brenneman focuses on the importance of delving into specifics and effects. What do white supremacists believe specifically. What are the effects, both on white people and non-white people, if the white supremacy views of society became a reality?

“…a lot of the times what these ideas break down to when you follow them to their conclusions is mass extermination or genocide or kicking people out of the country. These groups aren’t going to say that and maybe some of them don’t even believe that, in which case, they might need to be informed of that.”

White supremacy groups continue to hold a prominent place in American dialogue. Thus, it is crucial that the media comes to terms with how best to contribute truth and perspective to that dialogue.

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