(AP/Richard Drew)

The New York Times just taught us how not to profile a Nazi sympathizer

A puff piece that whitewashes the impacts of Nazism in middle America. This isn't the white working class


Jeremy Binckes
November 27, 2017 12:35PM (UTC)

When writing stories about Nazis, there are a few questions that are worth asking. For example, what is it that makes someone want to follow an ideology that led to the death of millions of people in Europe? Why is there hate? Does the subject realize that by following an arbitrary list of physical and genetic characteristics, one can easily possess one that could cause them to become the pariah in a genocidal and fascistic mindset? Should Americans punch them?

The piece shouldn't, on the other hand, be spending more time on how Nazis are just like us, when you think about it.

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Over the weekend, The New York Times released a piece, "A voice of hate in America's heartland," which was immediately blasted as a puff piece about how American a couple of Nazis could really seem. Here's the first scene-setter, where we're introduced to a couple of white supremacists mulling over what to order at a chain restaurant.

It was a weeknight at Applebee’s in Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton, a few weeks before the wedding. The couple, who live in nearby New Carlisle, were shoulder to shoulder at a table, young and in love. He was in a plain T-shirt, she in a sleeveless jean jacket. She ordered the boneless wings. Her parents had met him, she said, and approved of the match. The wedding would be small. Some of her best friends were going to be there. “A lot of girls are not really into politics,” she said.

The profile — which at one time featured an actual link to a site where a reader could purchase a swastika armband — allowed its white supremacist subject to say things like fascism is "our version of centrally coming together to try to stop another already centralized force.” More time was given to allowing him to spout off his ill-perceived view of the world than to watchdogs, who study the effects of white nationalism in everyday life, and their warnings of giving this ideology any credibility in mainstream America.

The outrage was pretty swift.

That's pretty much the reaction everywhere.

On Sunday, the Times tried a bit of damage control, writing one of the most understated paragraphs in recent journalism history.

Whatever our goal, a lot of readers found the story offensive, with many seizing on the idea we were normalizing neo-Nazi views and behavior. “How to normalize Nazis 101!” one reader wrote on Twitter. “I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,” wrote another. “Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups – should Never have been printed!”

Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. 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.

We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.

But the damage was done. It's hard to un-whitewash a white supremacist, and the Times will have to live with their tale of how not to profile a Nazi for a long, long time.

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Maybe the Times should stop giving Nazis the soft-focus treatment, considering that this is — at the very least — the second profile they've done on white supremacists in the past year.


Jeremy Binckes

Jeremy Binckes is the senior news editor at Salon.com.

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Alt Right Media Nazi Nazis New York Times White Supremacists

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