The New York Times’ profile of an Ohio Nazi is generating an enormous amount of outrage on Twitter among critics who think the paper is normalizing a dangerous hate-monger. I largely agree, though I would disagree with anyone who thinks it never should have seen the light of day in any form.
The problem is in the execution — in the course of showing how well Tony Hovater blends in (a useful insight), reporter Richard Fausset makes it appear that he believes Hovater is normal in some way. For instance, here is a paragraph that teeters on the brink:
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.
As Susieus Maximus put it on Twitter: “It’s like the writer either never heard the phrase, ‘the banality of evil,’ or else thought that all they had to show was the banality.”
The Times is performing badly in so many ways lately. It’s a shame that it can’t produce a straightforward profile of a Nazi without doing better than this.
Some updates. The antidote to the Times story is The Boston Globe’s series on York, Pennsylvania, by Matt Viser. Rather than simply mailing in postcards from Trump country, Viser has been balancing the views of Trump supporters with those who are horrified by what is going on. The latest installment was published today.
The Times has published a commentary by Fausset in which he admits that he didn’t come back with quite what he wanted. And the Times itself has posted a reaction to the feedback it’s received. “Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” writes national editor Marc Lacey. “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
Finally, Mangy Jay has posted a very smart thread on Twitter outlining how the Times could have — should have — approached a story that clearly went off the rails.
The last word. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post nails it: “The best way to avoid normalizing white nationalists is to report about their deeds, their friends, their families and their beliefs, and to not give up after an unsatisfactory phone call.”