A recent story in the New York Times has drawn more criticism than any I have seen for a long time. I would recommend you read the story, but I will give you the Cliff Notes version, just in case.
Times reporter Richard Fausset was given the assignment after the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, to interview at some length one of the participants in the rally, a man named Tony Hovater who lives in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. The purpose was to try to understand … what causes a man to turn into a monster, and how do we recognize one? Fausset spoke with Hovater a number of times, and also his wife, got a feel for their lives, and the controversy arises because he did not go at Hovater guns blazing in a storm of fury, and further, he did not portray Hovater as a monster of the recognizable sort.
I might have passed over the story, had I not seen no less than three stories in other publications about the controversy. Without reading those stories, I decided to check it out myself and then read about the controversy. As I read the story, which I found quite informative, I thought I understood the disdain many might have, for the approach was almost as if to normalize this neo-Nazi, white supremacist hater. It did annoy me, though at the same time I realized that if the reporter had gone into the first interview with the approach of planning to shred Hovater, he never would have gotten to first base. A journalist must operate with an open mind, else he will not be a journalist for long.
The story portrays Hovater as a fairly average 29-year-old suburban middle class male, a welder by trade, recently married to the woman he loves, living in a small house with dreams to upgrade, to someday have children, and all the other normal things, even grocery shopping and dining at Applebee’s. They even have cats! But then there is this whole ‘other’ side to Hovater. The side where he is adamant that the races are better off separated, although he insists he is not racist. The side of Hovater that posted on Facebook a picture purporting to show what life would have looked like if Germany had won World War II: a streetscape full of happy white people, a bustling American-style diner and swastikas everywhere, commenting “What part is supposed to look unappealing?” And after Charlottesville, Hovater wrote that he was proud of the comrades who joined him there: “We made history. Hail victory.” In German, “Hail victory” is “Sieg heil.”
The original story ran on Saturday, 25 November, and the criticism was swift and harsh, so on Sunday, 26 November, the Times posted a response explaining and justifying their stance, and apologizing where appropriate. In the words of Shane Bauer, a senior reporter at Mother Jones and a winner of the National Magazine Award, “People mad about this article want to believe that Nazis are monsters we cannot relate to. White supremacists are normal ass white people and it’s been that way in America since 1776. We will continue to be in trouble till we understand that.” I agree with Mr. Bauer. For me, the value of the story as written is that it shows we cannot recognize the monsters. They walk and live among us, they shop in the same grocery stores we do, and their kids play on our kids’ soccer teams. Their wives sit side by side in the hair salon and they work next to you, but you may never know it. No, it is not right to normalize hate, but it is important for us to understand that there is no universal face of hate.
Still, I also understand the criticism, for at some point I found myself thinking … “hmmmm just an average Joe?”. And I did bristle at what I first saw as an attempt to normalize white supremacy, racism, bigotry and hate. So yes, I understand the criticism … but, I think it was far overdone, the outrage unhelpful and even counter-productive. A few examples …
“How to normalize Nazis 101!”
“I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,”
“Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups – should Never have been printed!”
“Instead of long, glowing profiles of Nazis/White nationalists, why don’t we profile the victims of their ideologies?”
The Times, I think, handled the criticism in the best possible way, apologizing if people found the story offensive, but explaining the rationale …
“We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.”
No media outlet, no reporter, no blogger gets it right all the time. The more we try, the more opportunities for failure, but also for success. After much thought and pondering, I think the Times story is spot on. As I said, we need to understand that there is no universal face of evil. Remember Ted Bundy? Everyone thought he was a great guy … until … he turned out to be a serial killer, confessing to at least 30 extremely brutal homicides, even keeping the heads of some in his home. He had a job, a seemingly normal life, yet he referred to himself as “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet”.
What the Times’ story did was show us that there is no ‘face of evil’. We cannot pick them out of a crowd. We may chat with our neighbor over the fence daily, yet not know that he is spending his weekends planning neo-Nazi rallies. I applaud the Times, both for their approach and for their sensitivity when under fire.
Lastly, Mr. Fausset published a second story about his meetings with Hovater, about trying to find the reason for his stance, for his ideology of hate. Turns out, he began to change course for the same reasons that many are frustrated today: the political system and its inner workings. “The first time I thought about how a system will protect itself, and its own interests, to protect what it is they really want.” Fausset was looking for an answer to the question: “What prompted him to take his ideas beyond his living room, beyond the chat rooms, and on to Charlottesville, where he marched in August alongside allies like the neo-Confederate League of the South and the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement, which bills itself as “America’s Premier White Civil Rights Organization”? Where was his Rosebud?” And in the end, he does not feel he found a definitive answer. Nor do I, but I think we need to continue asking the question.