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Media mustn’t ignore fringe elements

On Sunday, The New York Times profiled a

On Sunday, The New York Times profiled a Nazi sympathizer, making some readers uncomfortable. Credit: Newsday

The internet has been in a tizzy about a New York Times profile of “the Nazi sympathizer next door.” The subject, 29-year-old Ohioan Tony Hovater, is a co-founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a group that has been involved in numerous white supremacist events, including the violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. He is also a welder, a newlywed who looks forward to being a dad, and a big fan of “Seinfeld.”

Does such a profile amount, as many critics have charged, to “normalizing” Nazism and offering a platform to a white supremacist? Or does it have the opposite purpose of showing that evil can wear a disturbingly normal face?

One could argue about whether the Times article, by Richard Fausset, could have been better done — for instance, included more details on Hovater’s journey “from vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist.” Any piece of journalism is open to legitimate criticism. But much of the online bashing, which came not only from random Twitter users but also from some respected left-wing journalists and commentators, has amounted to outright misrepresentation.

Thus, the article has been slammed as a “puff piece” — even though it calls Hovater a bigot. Its references to Hovater and his wife Maria’s ordinary life — four cats, a bridal registry, eating at Applebee’s, cooking pasta at home — have been taken as approval, even though they are clearly meant to be jarringly juxtaposed with the ugliness and extremism of their views. The supposed “puff piece” notes that, “Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by [Hovater’s] casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate.”

The story also has been criticized for not providing more specific information about the bigoted beliefs of the Traditionalist Worker Party. But surely mentioning the fact that its website sells swastika armbands offers a major clue to its extremism. The article also discusses a post by Hovater rhapsodizing about a world in which Nazi Germany had won World War II — a world full of happy white people and swastikas.

Do New York Times readers really need to be told that such fantasies are odious, that Hitler was evil, or that Holocaust denial is wrong? Some critics seem to think so.

But maybe the issue is not just lack of respect for the readers’ intelligence. A lot of people on the left really do object to humanizing far-right extremists — even though they usually take no issue with humanizing murderous Islamist radicals. These are the same folks who fixate on the idea that it’s not only permissible but morally laudable to punch Nazis — which is troubling for many reasons, not least that the definition of “Nazi” can be easily stretched to include any garden-variety Republican.

Conservative writer Bethany Mandel, herself a frequent target of anti-Semitic abuse online, has endured a barrage of insults over a column in August for The Forward, a leading Jewish website, that argued for befriending neo-Nazis. Of course, Mandel’s entire point was that building such human ties can be an effective way to heal hate.

Robust online debate can often make journalism better. But the frenzy over the Times profile of Hovater, which has prompted the paper to express regret in a note from its national editor over offending its readers, might well have the opposite effect. However imperfectly, the original Times piece addressed an important subject: the fact that some ordinary Americans are succumbing to the lure of dangerous fringe ideologies. If the backlash makes other journalists skittish about exploring this topic, it will be a loss to us all.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.